Late in the fourth quarter, with the Houston Rockets still within distance, the ball swung to Wendell Carter and Chuma Okeke popped out to the wing. And then bullseye, he drained his fifth three of the night to top off a career night with 26 points.
Okeke’s hot hand carried the Orlando Magic to a 119-111 victory over the Houston Rockets in its first game back from the All-Star Break, starting off the final stretch of the season on the right foot.
Chuma Okeke turned in a career night as the Orlando Magic bounced back into the season with a big win over the Houston Rockets at the Amway Center.
The second-year forward was feeling it all night but was smoking hot in the second half. He scored16 of his 26 points in the second half as the Magic tried building on a halftime lead.
Okeke’s contributions did not just come offensively. He was his usual self defensively creating steals and deflections and helping protect the paint. The 6-foot-6 forward was moving his feet relentlessly on defense and with active hands he snagged three steals.
That was critical for the Magic to gain distance and put the Rockets away.
"“The defense is more important for what he’s able to do in these situations,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Friday’s win. “He’s able to guard multiple positions, switching one to five. He was just great with his active hands.”"
That defense must have given his offense a jolt. It certainly gave the Magic’s offense as a whole a jolt. Okeke’s contributions, along with fellow bench players like R.J. Hampton and Gary Harris, helped turn the tide in the game.
Yes, the Magic started slow, scoring only two points in the game’s first four minutes, but the second unit came to play.
"“We came in kind of flat in the first quarter and also at halftime,” Okeke said after Friday’s win. “Whenever the first unit lacks energy like that, we just try to come in, pick them up, and we did that. We came in and finished out the game.”"
Orlando’s bench combined for a total of 59 points. Combo guard R.J. Hampton returned in grand fashion and scored 11 after missing 15 games.
Hampton was aggressive driving to the paint, but also under control. He was another ball-handler on the floor and dished out four assists in 23 minutes of play.
R.J. Hampton helped pace the team as Jalen Suggs dealt with foul trouble throughout the entire game. Hampton’s play was a surprise after missing so much time.
"“For him to come off five weeks of not playing and just step right in and defend the way he defended, making the decisions that he made at times, I think that’s huge,” Mosley said after Friday’s game. “We always talk about guys staying ready. And he took the time out as he was off to get his conditioning right, to look at his decision making, to talk about what he needed to do on the floor for us and he did that for us tonight.”"
While the bench played a key role, Wendell Carter Jr. helped stabilize the group with his steady play in the paint, setting screens and being a guy the offense can flow from.
Carter finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds, making nine of his 11 shots. Carter has often been the steady drumbeat of the offense throughout the season, helping give them that stability they need to close and being a reliable outlet and fulcrum for the team.
Carter said he often can get down on himself for making mistakes. But he has taken a leadership role in helping keep the team focused. And in games like this, he is usually the one stepping up.
"“This is my fourth year in the league, I took this All-Star break and got way from the game, kind of got my mental together,” Carter said after Friday’s game. “It’s like playing with a fresh start coming out of the All-Star break. So, that’s how I looked at this game. I just came out, free-flowing, let the game come to me, don’t force anything.”"
Orlando picked up its 14th win of the season. While the team still remains tied for the fewest wins in the league, the Magic know games and experiences like the fourth quarter of Friday’s game will help the team grow and develop.
As Okeke said in the postgame on Bally Sports Florida, if the team is this tied together and this hungry with a poor record, what will they look like when they start winning?
The final remaining 21 games for the Magic are vital for building momentum into the offseason and next year. The team has to continue to show growth in all facets of the game.
"“We’re going to keep learning,” Mosley said after Friday’s game. “To understand in what situation we find ourselves in and how we react to them. So, knowing that it’s a game of runs and guys are going to make runs, they’re going to make shots. We have to understand we got to keep our poise and that’s what we were able to do tonight.”"
The Magic will get another chance to build on this and finish strong at home when they open a pair of games against the Indiana Pacers on Monday night.