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Magic vs. Pistons preview: Two young teams building for their futures, meet in the present

It will be the game of the night in the NBA when Detroit visits Orlando Thursday night.

Orlando Magic v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Be sure to make your plans now to watch the (18-51) Detroit Pistons travel to City Beautiful to take on the (18-52) Orlando Magic. It will be the best game of the night in the NBA Thursday, you won’t want to miss it!

Well, technically Magic/Pistons is the only game scheduled on the NBA docket Thursday (and I promise that is the last time I will make that joke).

Two teams will meet in Orlando looking to build momentum they can carry over into next year as they attempt to finish their respective seasons with strong play, while also clearly looking towards the future - NBA Draft Lottery, NBA Draft, etc.

The Magic and Pistons - along with the Houston Rockets - currently sit as bottom-three teams in the overall NBA standings. What that means is, both Orlando and Detroit hold the greatest odds (at the moment) of winning the NBA Draft Lottery (14.0 percent). Remember, the lottery determines the top four overall picks with a random drawing of ping-pong balls, all other selections are determined by overall record.

Of course, these teams are highly familiar with the lottery process, as both the Pistons (won the lottery, selected Cade Cunningham #1 in ‘21) and the Magic (selected Jalen Suggs at #5, and Franz Wagner at #8 in ‘21) were going through it at this point last season as well.

While most of the basketball world will likely be watching the first day/night of the NCAA Tournament, Thursday’s contest in Orlando will feature many NBA players who are young enough to still be playing in college themselves.

Like the Magic, the Pistons have been playing considerably better since the All-Star break. After losing eight of nine games heading into the break, Detroit won five of their first seven games after the break. They do enter play Thursday losers of their last four games in a row (Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami), but even in those contests against some playoff caliber teams, their margin of defeat was only an average of 7.0 points.

Despite their somewhat improved play over the last few weeks, oddsmakers still favor the Orlando Magic (-3) in this matchup against the Detroit Pistons (+3).

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

For the Pistons, it all starts with their franchise cornerstone Cunningham (20), who leads all rookies in scoring (16.9 points per game). And the 6-6 guard is second among rookies, behind only Josh Giddey, in assists (5.3 per game). Cunningham did not play in Detroit’s last game against the Miami Heat due to an illness, and it’s unclear whether he will play against the Magic on Thursday (he is currently listed as ‘QUESTIONABLE’).

Cunningham has struggled mightily against the Magic across three games this season, converting just 7 of 39 field goal attempts (17.9 percent), and 0 of 15 three-point field goal attempts.

Jerami Grant, Detroit’s leading scorer at 19.0 points per game, will miss Thursday’s contest with right knee inflammation.

The Magic have found their own relative amount of success since the All-Star break (5-5 in ten games), especially on the defensive end, but reality set-in in a big way their last time on the floor. Orlando was blown out by Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets, giving up a franchise record 150 points in the contest.

Irving scored 60 of those points himself, setting a Brooklyn Nets all-time franchise record for points scored in a single game. Irving’s career-night marked the second most points ever scored by a single player against Orlando in one game.

“Kyrie Irving. At the end of the day, that’s what it was,” Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley told reporters after the game Tuesday night, when asked about his team’s defensive performance against the Nets. “He was comfortable on the floor, and he’s a great basketball player. What he did tonight, he showed it. You’ve got to tip your hat to him, tip your hat to their team (and what they’ve done). He’s a special player.”

41 of Irving’s 60 points came in the first half, as he sliced and diced Orlando’s defense off the dribble, on the perimeter, in pick-and-roll situations, and in the paint.

“Basically, after the first half, we wanted to get the ball out of his (Irving’s) hands as much as possible (for the rest of the game),” Wagner told reporters. “Even that didn’t really work. Tried to double-team him whenever. But like I said, players like that - you just can’t let them be comfortable early on. Many times - good defense or bad defense - they just make them.”

Orlando, who had the league’s top-rated defense since the break before Tuesday’s contest against Brooklyn, will look to rebound against a team they defeated (at the Amway Center) by 16 points back in late January.

In that matchup, the Magic blitzed the Pistons early - jumping out to a 20 point lead in the first quarter - before coasting the rest of the way to earn the victory.

Wagner scored 24 points (7 of 12 FGA’s, 8 of 8 FTA’s) against Detroit on January 28th. The 6-9 rookie forward has averaged 17.3 points in three games against the Pistons this season (51.4 percent shooting, 64.2 true shooting percentage).

Fellow rookie Jalen Suggs missed Orlando’s game Tuesday against Brooklyn with an ankle injury he suffered in Sunday’s matchup against Philadelphia, and he will be out again Thursday against Detroit.

The team is also listing Wendell Carter Jr. (ankle) and Chuma Okeke (knee) as both ‘QUESTIONABLE’ heading into Thursday’s game, something to surely monitor as we move closer to tipoff (Okeke is now listed as ‘OUT’).

And finally, after months of speculation regarding his status, the Magic organization officially announced earlier this week that Jonathan Isaac will in fact miss the remainder of the 2021-22 season as he continues to rehab his left knee. Of course, Isaac has not played at all this season (hasn’t played since August of 2020 in fact), but the announcement officially ruled out an unlikely return for the fifth-year forward this year.

It may not be pretty, and it may only be for bragging rights between two lottery-bound teams. And there may be a handful of guys out on both sides, with just a handful of people watching those who are on the court. But Magic/Pistons is absolutely a thing, and it will be the only NBA game on tonight.

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