Markelle Fultz became more than a comeback story in Orlando Magic’s win over Los Angeles Lakers

Markelle Fultz led the most clutch moment of the Orlando Magic's season in a masterful finish to upset the Los Angeles Lakers. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Markelle Fultz led the most clutch moment of the Orlando Magic's season in a masterful finish to upset the Los Angeles Lakers. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic’s landmark win over the Los Angeles Lakers saw Markelle Fultz display maturity and poise that made his story more than a comeback.

The pressure was fully on Markelle Fultz as the Orlando Magic hit the midpoint of the season in Los Angeles against the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers.

He had made a mistake two games before against the Phoenix Suns, committing a turnover that led directly to Devin Booker’s go-ahead 3-pointer. He admitted the mistake at the time and wanted to make sure to fans and teammates he would make good when given another opportunity.

Fultz was ever faithful to the grind. He has had a lot to learn throughout this year — essentially his rookie year — but stayed true to himself. That was always the person Fultz had to trust most in his comeback.

Now the Magic had to put their trust in him.

Against the Lakers on Jan. 15, they had no choice. Everything was in Markelle Fultz’s hands.

D.J. Augustin was out with an injury and Evan Fournier would miss the game too. Michael Carter-Williams was still some time from returning from his latest injury. And Josh Magette was cut to make room for Gary Clark.

The Magic had no other point guards to go up against one of the league’s top teams. All eyes, in one of the biggest markets against the marquee team of the league, were on Fultz.

His comeback story through the first half of the season was a good one. He had climbed into the starting lineup quickly of a playoff-bound team, but he was still clearly feeling his way around the league. He had not quite taken control.

He had some moments already — the steal and finish early in the season to put away the Washington Wizards, a dominant fourth-quarter in a 25-point effort to defeat the Brooklyn Nets. But there was still some doubt. Fultz was a rookie going through his ups and downs and struggles and triumphs. Nobody knew quite what to believe.

As the Magic faced the Lakers, it almost did not feel like Fultz was imprinting himself on the game. His build-up throughout the game was slow. He was managing the game and keeping his team in rhythm.

There were moments, of course, that would preview Fultz’s rise.

On a second-quarter fast break, Markelle Fultz drove into the lane and right into LeBron James, moving him out of the way and finishing on the break. Perhaps he pushed off (he probably did, but who is calling that foul for a tank like James?) but it showed no fear. It showed Fultz could stand up to the best and stand tall.

More importantly, it was a preview of what would come.

Fultz got a second chance to go at James in the dying moments of the game. With the Magic clinging to a two-point lead, Fultz danced around the lane, drawing a switch on the surefire hall of famer. Fultz kept him off balance before attacking one final time, zooming past him and finishing a flourish at the rim.

Fultz had started to build some late-game bona fides, but this was the biggest stage and the biggest win for him to showcase his return. He recorded a triple-double, having a hand in the Magic’s final seven points as the team held off the Lakers’ late charge.

More than the way Fulz finished the game it was the way he paced the team throughout the game. With no one else to rely on at point guard — Aaron Gordon took a turn early in the third quarter to limited effect — it was all on Fultz to manage the game and get them through.

He played what was then a career-high 33 minutes, he has since passed it five times as a further sign of the team’s confidence in their young point guard. But more than that he paced the team throughout.

Early on was not his time to score. He simply worked as a game manager. But he kept the ball moving. He kept things flowing. He got the keys and drove the Magic to an early lead, as much as 21.

As things started to fall apart and the Magic’s hot shooting and strong defense wore off, Fultz became the stabilizer again. He started driving into the lane more and picking out passes. He found angles and found seams to attack. He created passes that sometimes caught his teammates off guard but put them in positions to score.

And as the game drew tighter and time wound down, Fultz took over and found a way to score.

So much of what Fultz does that excited Magic fans and probably the coaching staff was fully on display in this huge win over the Lakers.

Playing without Evan Fournier, yes, he was freer to take over the game. He had more control over the offense than he probably ever had to that point. He did not let his team down, growing from mistakes made in recent previous games.

This was a game that required tremendous poise. The Magic built a 21-point lead, only to give it away and trail by four. What made Orlando’s win so impressive on the road was that the team was undermanned and giving up momentum. It would have been easy to fold.

But Fultz would not let the team do that. He stayed level. You would hardly notice he was leading the team in scoring, let alone on the verge of a triple-double. It is this poise that has impressed more than anything else. He has looked and played much more experienced than he really is.

With so much to learn and take in, it was going to take Fultz a while to find his way. It certainly happened before the midpoint of the season and the win over the Lakers. But leading Orlando to such a huge win over Los Angeles was a turning point in his season.

He was no longer just a nice story. He was a player for this team. Someone they could trust. And slowly the team has ramped up his responsibility as Fultz ramped up his confidence.

In the second half of the season — since the win over the Lakers — Fultz has averaged 12.6 points and 6.3 assists per game with a 51.6-percent effective field goal percentage. Fultz is not taking over games, but he has remained a steady presence for the team.

And when the Magic need him to step up, he has done so.

The next step in Fultz’s development is to trust him more. Just as the Magic were forced to that night in Los Angeles. It was the first night Fultz seemingly had complete freedom and the first night he stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park.

He kept doing that for the rest of the season, only adding to the excitement for his potential moving forward.

NBA's future must give Orlando Magic playoff advantage. dark. Next

Part of the magic of that night in Los Angeles was watching Fultz mature like this. And the Magic are only hoping for a whole lot more.