The Orlando Magic’s starters built up a 20-point lead and coasted to the end of the third quarter, leaving the rookies to hang on for a preseason win.
If the Orlando Magic are going to be a team that makes the playoffs for the third consecutive season, they are going to have to do the things they did in the first quarter of their final preseason game on Saturday to do so.
Forcing turnovers, making three-point shots and just showing an overall intensity to the game is something the Magic need to bring on a nightly basis if they want to be considered a contender.
Nikola Vucevic opened up the night with three 3-pointers and 11 points in the game’s first five minutes to put the Magic up early. The Magic made four of their first five threes overall and in the first half converted 10 of their 20 3-point chances.
But in a second and third quarter in which the Magic held the fort down, the team held a 16-point lead heading into the fourth quarter and then completely fell apart. This, of course, with the team’s starter sitting out the entire quarter.
The lead fell apart for them after they allowed far too many three-pointers to the Charlotte Hornets in the final period to allow them to come back and nearly win the game. The pressure defense the Hornets employed gave the young Magic reserves a difficult time and the turnovers started to pile up too.
The Hornets were able to take a seven-point lead on a 27-2 run, which the Magic were able to answer with a 7-0 run of their own, capped off by a Cole Anthony triple.
The fourth quarter was played by the second unit of Cole Anthony, Chuma Okeke, Terrence Ross, Khem Birch and Michael Carter-Williams, as Steve Clifford allowed the unit that got themselves into the mess to get themselves out of it.
That finally happened with a pass from Cole Anthony to Devin Cannady, in for the final two minutes of a close game cold off the bench, for a three. And then with Anthony breaking the defense down himself and hitting a floater to give Orlando a one-point lead with 30 seconds left.
The rookie closed the game out for a 120-117 victory in the preseason finale.
Had the Magic gone back to Nikola Vucevic, Markelle Fultz and the first unit, maybe the result would have been different, but the result does not matter here. What is important is there were good things, and things to learn from for this Magic team.
The Magic learned they can shoot effectively at times, but they have to bear down and close games out. They learned their rookies can be relied on with the ball in their hands when the game is on the line.
And tonight, it was Cole Anthony.
Cole Anthony made the game winner. It has to be an A.
Of course he was on the floor when it all went haywire in the fourth quarter and was the lead point guard at that time too. His five turnovers stand tall — and a lot of that came late in the game. But he is a rookie. He is going to go through his growing pains.
But there is no denying Anthony’s scoring ability, and therei s no denying he wants the ball in his hands when the game is on the line. As Aaron Gordon said in his postgame interview, he’s a “baller”. And it is hard to disagree with that. He scored 19 points in this game with four assists and two steals.
Aaron Gordon set the tone for the Orlando Magic early in the game, and he had a great night overall in every statistical category. People do not talk about Gordon’s passing ability, but he showed it with some very fine looks, tallying three assists.
He also notched 20 points and added nine rebounds, three of them offensive in just 22 minutes. He largely played within himself and waited for the offense to come. But some of his worst nature trying to attack off the dribble and shoot stepbacks became apparent too.
When Gordon is playing an aggressive brand of basketball, the Magic are simply a different team. He needs to pass the ball around and not dribble too much because that can be a problem for him, but when he is controlled chaos, Gordon can be a problem for opponents.
Nikola Vucevic got off to a blazing start in this game. As he continues to shoot more threes, he is going to get more comfortable and be more dynamic in his ability to score and score in bunches, even more than he already does.
Early on in the game there were not many close-outs going on for either team and Vucevic took advantage, making 4-of-6 threes and scoring 18 points in 26 minutes. He also added 12 rebounds for his routine double-double. All in a day’s work for Vucevic.
Khem Birch is the quintessential role player. He does the dirty work. He is not flashy, he does not impress you with his ability to shoot or dribble, but he is a very good basketball player. If the Orlando Magic are going to succeed in 2021, they will need a lot of what Birch brought on Saturday.
He was able to propel the second unit in the second quarter with offensive rebounds, tough interior defense and contested layups as he often does. He finished the night with nine points and five rebounds, three of them offensive. That has been the norm for him throughout the preseason.
The Charlotte Hornets really put in a good effort late in this game to make in an entertaining contest that went down to the final bucket. For the first three quarters, this one looked like a laugher, but the Hornets got their money’s worth and made a number of shots throughout the night.
Devonte’ Graham in particular showed an impressive shooting range with 25 points on 6-for-11 shooting from beyond the arc. However, the team turned it over 12 times in the first half and that was enough to cost them overall.
LaMelo Ball did not have a good performance in the first half, but did dish some good passes and showcased his potential during the long Hornets run.
The Orlando Magic finish the preseason at 2-2 and will begin their season on Dec. 23 against the Miami Heat.