The Orlando Magic again face an injury to a starter and key player. They continued to show resilience and rally. They have to hope the change is consistent.
With about four minutes remaining in the third quarter, coach Steve Clifford slowly walked from center court toward the bench. Aaron Gordon was about to receive a pass as the Orlando Magic expertly broke down the zone defense and finish with a two-handed jam. For the first time in a long while the Magic had a comfortable win on their hands.
But Steve Clifford was speaking to assistant coach Tyrone Corbin, leaning over to hand him his coaching card before he walked off the court toward the locker room. It was a bit jarring to see Tyrone Corbin standing on the sideline leading the team.
Players even said the team lost some of its organization and some of its spirit. The Orlando Magic glided to the finish line in a 132-118 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, letting the game get a little closer than it should have been in the end.
Clifford has rejoined the team after being released from the hospital early Saturday morning. The Magic say he was feeling ill and succumbed to dehydration. He is cleared to coach as the team continues its road trip in Houston on Sunday (the team flew out of Minneapolis for Texas on Saturday morning before a scheduled practice when they land).
It seems even their coach is not immune to injury. In a season full of them, the Magic have had to constantly adapt and redefine themselves as key players fall to injury. They have had to over and over again.
This team was not meant to sustain these kinds of injuries to key players at this level. The latest is Evan Fournier going down to a sprained UCL in his right elbow. An injury Evan Fournier said he could play through if it was on his non-shooting arm. It is that time of year to play through pain and help your team pick up these ever-important wins.
Before Friday’s game, Clifford said as a layman he would expect Fournier to miss some time. How long is not yet clear. The swelling in his elbow still has to go down. It is certain he is out at least the next few games.
Orlando’s answer to his absence was the same answer they always had. They pulled together and players stepped up in his absence, at least initially. The Magic found some urgency and filled in the gaps.
Orlando is not a team where one player can replace what Fournier does. The team does not have a ton of shooting and so losing a great shooter like Fournier leaves a big hole. But spreading his touches around changed how the team played.
Markelle Fultz was the biggest beneficiary.
Like he did in the other game Evan Fournier missed — the Orlando Magic’s 119-118 win over the Los Angeles Lakers — Markelle Fultz took over. He had a triple-double of 21 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in that game, hitting several key shots down the stretch to take down the Western Conference’s top team.
Friday night, Fultz had complete control of the game, weaving his way in and out of the lane. He drove to the basket and finished with style. Or he stopped and hit mid-range jumpers, forcing the Timberwolves to adjust their defense to account for him.
After this first-quarter jumper, with the defense clearly retreating to allow it, Fultz took only two more jump shots the rest of the game. Notice too how quickly he attacks. Fultz is always moving forward, even when he stops and starts to throw the defense off balance.
More importantly, with the ball in his hands a lot more, the Magic picked up their pace. Fultz drove down the court and quickly through the lane, using his tremendous change of pace to keep the defense off-balance. Orlando had only 14 fast-break points in the game (still more than their average of 11.8 per game). But the team was moving and playing with speed through their sets.
Fultz tied his career-high with 25 points, making 11 of 14 shots. He added five assists and five rebounds. The ball was in Fultz’s hands a lot more and he took advantage. Getting the Magic moving with some superb play.
Fournier can slow the game down on occasion. He likes to catch the ball and wait for the screen to begin his attack. Fournier is not great at breaking players down off the dribble. Using him as a primary creator inevitably slows the game down.
The team had to change without him. And trusting a player like Fultz is necessary when the team loses such a big piece of its puzzle.
The team certainly had an increased focus too. Orlando was playing with far more determination and urgency with Fournier out. Everyone had to be sharper.
Even a player who struggled like Aaron Gordon — 15 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and 6-for-15 shooting — had to find a way to contribute. During the Magic’s third-quarter run to pull away from the Timberwolves, he dove to the lane, turned and sealed to finish at the rim.
He pinned Juancho Hernangomez on the block only needing a good lob pass to set him up for easy baskets. Or cut through the lane to finish at the rim. The defense could not catch up.
Plenty of other players had similar moments of revelation.
Wesley Iwundu took advantage of his run in the starting lineup, providing good energy and getting out and running a lot more. He tends to be willing to get out in transition a lot more. Michael Carter-Williams was all over the floor and stepped up offensively with 17 points on 6-for-7 shooting.
It is hard to say whether all of this will last. Markelle Fultz and Michael Carter-Williams both had unusually efficient shooting games. Orlando shot 60.7 percent from the floor for the game. The Timberwolves are not a good defensive team.
But again, the Magic had to adjust. They had players increase their output and the Magic very much changed their style to meet this moment.
It is the same thing they did with Nikola Vucevic out for 11 games in November. The Magic had to rely more on their motion and cutting with their post fulcrum out for an extended time. Before you bury Fournier, he was key in the team surviving that stretch.
If Orlando did not go 5-6 during that period, the season would likely have been lost. Orlando banded together and survived during that key stretch of the schedule.
They have done so again — to varying degrees — since Jonathan Isaac‘s injury in early January. The team has struggled to get its defense right, but the team continues to find a way to tread water with that extended injury.
Another extended injury to Fournier will again test the Magic’s resiliency. But they have proven at least somewhat elastic on this front. They have shaped and formed their way to find a way to scratch out wins before.
Friday was merely a first test for this team. In the immediate aftermath of Fournier’s injury, the Magic’s resiliency won out. Now comes the test for consistency.