With the working week winding to an end, let’s check the pulse of all things pinstriped.
Who won the week that was?
It’s taken less than twelve months for Wendell Carter Jr. to cement himself as a pillar of consistency for the Magic. After his stint in Chicago largely fizzled out, the big man found himself tossed into the Vucevic trade, an opportunity he quickly parlayed into a four-year, $50 million contract (fully guaranteed). And while it initially may have been a number that inspired some hesitation – particularly for a side who already had hefty money committed to some pieces battling just to get on the court – it has fast revealed itself to be a relative bargain. $12.5 million annually for a starting caliber big with some positional versatility? Sounds great!
Across four games last week Carter Jr. averaged 16.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists on shooting figures just north of 50.0%. His return to the lineup after a recent injury has largely coincided with the team’s improved defensive structures, while his offense – including the ability to stretch the floor, an increasingly incisive passing game, and the handful of extra possessions he generates on the glass each night – creates opportunities for teammates simply by virtue of his presence. The team is simply better when he plays, a fact which was broadcast clearly across the team’s first winning week for the season.
The upcoming slate
This week’s schedule: vs Grizzlies (Sat); vs Celtics (Sun); at Blazers (Tue)
There are very few matchups in the NBA right now that are tougher than the one with the crew from Memphis. They’ve surged to the league’s third-best record, dropping just four games since Christmas and establishing themselves as a legitimate contender in the upper echelon of the Western Conference. They play with a burst at both ends of the court, led by the shot-blocking exploits of Jackson Jr., the limitless energy of Bane, and the forceful swagger of their newly minted All-Star, Ja Morant. They’re a handful for any team, let alone one at the bottom of the standings looking up.
The week’s other tilts, against the Celtics and the Blazers respectively, figure to be a little more competitive. Boston have used a recent three-game winning streak to get back to the edge of the top eight, but they’re still a team of fluctuating performance; they possess an inconsistency that means they’re seemingly equally capable of toppling a one-seed as they are of losing to a team residing ten or more games below .500 – they’ve done both in the last month! There’s no result that could qualify as a genuine surprise in this one.
Portland, meanwhile, are struggling, having lost three straight and five of six, many by a wide margin. The ongoing absence of Lillard looms large over their current circumstances, and even though the game is taking place on their home-court the Magic will like their chances; there aren’t many teams that can claim to have won more contests on the road than at home this year, but Orlando is one of them.
Still, the most important team when calculating these equations might just be the Magic. They’ve been significantly better of late, winning four of their last six including a pair of genuinely impressive victories over the Bulls and the Mavs and a commendable comeback against the Pacers. In general their play has been much more competitive, evident in the way the team has shrunk both the gap in the standings and the size of their point differential (now down to -7.7, a notable improvement over a mark that had at one stage ballooned to almost double digits). With an increasingly healthy squad and some tangible progress evident in the on-court product, the opposition are no longer simply penciling in wins when they see the Magic on the schedule.
The crystal ball says …
Although I don’t think that the Magic are going to continue to win two-thirds of their games the rest of the way, this does feel like a week where such a rate is again a chance. Let’s keep the good vibes going and say they close out the Blazers, snag an upset against the Cs, and ultimately make the Grizz fight for the W.
The next week is an important one for …
Chuma Okeke. Life as a sophomore has been tough for the do-it-all forward, although recent performances suggest he’s starting to round into a form more like that which he flashed during the most impressive moments of his rookie campaign. He’s had a fistful of stat-sheet stuffing outings in the last two weeks, with significantly improved outside shooting numbers to boot. He looks a little more decisive and confident with the ball in hand, and he’s frequently back to being the defensive nuisance that his skill set lends itself towards. If he can maintain this momentum a little longer it will ensure that the rust of the early season remains firmly forgotten.
A figure for thought
36.5 – the percentage that Magic opponents are shooting from three-point range on the season, the third-most accurate mark league-wide.