The Orlando Magic played with energy and intensity to hide some first-game jitters to defeat the Miami Heat in their season opener.
The difference between winning and losing can be something intangible. A missed shot at the wrong time can deflate spirits or lead directly to a momentum-changing basket. Things swing quickly in any game. Especially in a battle between teams playing at a nearly even level.
The first game of every season usually feels like teams are on a level playing field. They do not quite know who they are yet and they are still seeking their way to play. Everything is uncertain.
Let the Orlando Magic decrease that certainty at a critical moment. A moment they hope is a sign of brighter things to come.
With the Magic holding onto a four-point lead with a minute to go, Aaron Gordon entered the ball to Nikola Vucevic in the high post. He quickly fed a pass to a cutting Evan Fournier who laid it in and drew the foul.
That was some needed breathing room. Especially in a game that had been so tight throughout and seen the Magic give up their largest lead in the game thanks to a four-minute scoring drought.
They relied on what they know best in this uncertain season — each other. And they willed themselves to victory in a 113-107 season-opening win over the defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat.
The game was sloppy in a lot of areas — both teams turned the ball over a lot (17 for Orlando and 22 for Miami). And the Magic missed opportunities to extend their lead at the foul line on several occasions or by relying too much on their 3-point shooting.
But the end of the game came down to a simple task of execution and will. Whoever was going to get stops and find ways to score was going to win.
Most people would probably bet on a multi-faceted offensive team with Jimmy Butler leading the way like the Heat to get the job done. Instead, Orlando closed the deal. Markelle Fultz drove to the basket and finished over bodies. Evan Fournier hit the big shot. And the Magic’s defense stood tall at the biggest moment.
Evan Fournier did not have a good postseason or bubble run. He will admit that and it left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth after a stellar season for him. The best of his career. Fournier might have something to prove yet again — not to mention the fact it is another contract year for him.
Fournier picked up where he left off before his elbow injury ended his pre-bubble run. He was on balance and shooting comfortably, providing a nice outlet throughout the entire game. When the Magic came out of a timeout after a four-minute scoring drought in the fourth quarter and needed a basket, they turned to Fournier.
It was a huge play for this team to calm their nerves and keep them in a game that felt like it was on the brink. The Magic are going to rely on Fournier for this kind of offense. He made good decisions in pick and rolls and on the attack, playing within the flow for 25 points on 9-for-13 shooting as much as he ever has.
Looking for who set the tone for the Orlando Magic’s effort and energy? Look no further than Aaron Gordon. The Magic’s energy and intensity were strong from the tip thanks to the general activity that Gordon displayed. He was in passing lanes throughout the entire game and just made it difficult for the Miami Heat to operate their offense early — especially Jimmy Butler, who finished with 19 points on 7-for-15 shooting with six turnovers.
Gordon had four steals and seven rebounds to lead the Magic’s defensive efforts. When Orlando was playing its best it was because Gordon was making plays that helped spark the offense. And more specifically his offensive game. Aaron Gordon had plenty of shots come in transition — including the highlight-reel dunk of the night on a feed from Cole Anthony.
Gordon was by no means perfect. He picked up two quick fouls early in the third quarter that limited his play for much of the second half. Those four fouls could have derailed the team pretty easily. And Gordon had a stretch in the second quarter when he was trying too hard to create off the dribble and settling for shots from the outside. Still, his 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting was impressive.
Cole Anthony looked like a rookie throughout his first regular-season game. He certainly got treated like it. His early run in the second quarter was marked by mistakes and the Miami Heat specifically targeting him. Goran Dragic used all his veteran wiles to torture the young point guard early. The Orlando Magic had to switch Michael Carter-Williams onto him just to get some relief.
The initial shock wore off. And while Anthony certainly still has a ways to go, he made a clear positive impact. Once he calmed down, Anthony played with a ton of poise and did a good job organizing the Magic’s second unit for long stretches — there were still stretches where perhaps the Magic needed him to be more aggressive, but there is a lot of learning to do here.
Anthony finished with six points and six assists (along with three turnovers). He was doing great work to seek out his teammates. But he was still more than willing to take his shot when it come to him. Anthony certainly looked like he could be a player for this team.
Cole Anthony might be a bit further along than Chuma Okeke, but Okeke was the one who truly got thrown into the fire in his first game. He was not entirely ready for it, but he did his best and showed plenty of signs of how good he can be. The pieces just have to come together.
Chuma Okeke was not hunting for his shot, although he was willing to shoot and drive when it called for it. He finished with three points on 1-for-3 shooting — hitting a toe-on-the-line jumper from the corner in the second quarter. Okeke showed plenty of strong defensive plays too. he slid over and rotated well.
The speed of the game though is clearly still the problem. It looked like Okeke was experiencing the whiplash of a real game for the first time and he did not quite know how to slow himself down. But even with all that going on, he made plenty of good plays to provide hope.
The Miami Heat certainly have the ability to beat you in a ton of ways. It was clear even in this game how multi-faceted and difficult their offense can be to handle. They never seemed quite out of it and the Orlando Magic had their hands full trying to corral them throughout the game.
Miami shot 50.6-percent from the floor. And the team got its share of 3-pointers. But the Heat’s struggle to make from the outside and how well the Magic did defending the line hurt them in the end. So too did Orlando’s overall energy in forcing turnovers — 22 for 24 points. It was a generally sloppy game for the Heat.
They could never really get Jimmy Butler going fully, a credit to the Magic’s overall defense on him. And the edge that made the Heat so dangerous in the playoffs a few months ago was not really that present. Miami played a fine game for the first outing. But certainly not the team’s best effort.
The Orlando Magic are now 1-0 and will next play Saturday in Washington against the Washington Wizards in their first of two games this weekend.