It’s no coincidence the Orlando Magic have been one of the NBA’s best defensive teams since getting Michael Carter-Williams back several games ago. No matter who he’s tasked with guarding, and on Friday night that was Stephen Curry most of the night, the 6-foot-6, 190-pounder tends to wreak havoc on that side of the floor. An example of how well he guarded Curry came on the game’s most important possession when he forced the seven-time NBA All-Star, three-time champion and two-time league MVP into an air-ball on a 3-point try in the closing seconds of the Magic’s 124-120 victory over the Golden State Warriors at Amway Center.
In the coming days, the NBA will announce the All-Star reserves for next month’s midseason classic. Once again, Nikola Vucevic showed the voters why he deserves to hear his name called. The 7-footer recorded his third career triple-double with 30 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists. He also didn’t commit a single turnover, making him just the second center since 1985 – Nikola Jokic being the other – to post a 30-point triple-double with zero turnovers. His two free throws that preceded Curry’s missed 3-pointer in the final seconds was huge as well. Evan Fournier, meanwhile, had a spectacular night with a season-high 28 points. He, like Carter-Williams, was excellent guarding Curry, who although finishing with 29 points made just 11 of his 29 shot attempts and six of his 16 tries from beyond the arc.
Chuma Okeke may just be a rookie and still in the very early stages of his development, but Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford and his teammates have complete trust in him to make big plays on both ends of the floor. That the 22-year-old did on Friday night, knocking down a pair of clutch 3-pointers late and playing stout defense that included blocking three shots, one of them on a Curry shot.
Friday’s game was all about big runs, and the Magic had the one that made the biggest difference. Trailing by 13 with just under nine minutes left in the fourth, Orlando went on a 20-6 run in the next five minutes to reclaim the lead. Vucevic made three shots during that stretch, including a go-ahead jumper with 3:01 remaining. The Warriors had erased a 17-point Magic lead in the third.
Okeke scored eight of his 11 points in the fourth quarter. His last of three 3-pointers on the night gave Orlando a 116-114 lead with 2:19 left. On the Magic’s next possession, Terrence Ross, who scored 24 points, drilled one of his four 3-pointers. Aside from Vucevic’s two free throws with 16.4 seconds left, Carter-Williams buried a pair at the stripe late and James Ennis III made one with 2.9 ticks remaining that preserved the win.
In recent years, the Magic have shown to go through extreme highs and extreme lows when it comes to their 3-point shooting. Right now, they are in a really good rhythm from downtown. They sank 18 threes on Friday, their second highest total in a game this season. They have buried at least 15 shots from long distance in four of their last five games.
Quote of the Night
“Making big plays on defense is always going to be energizing to the team just because we work on that every day and just seeing it actually done in a live game, that just motivates everybody to doing it, just setting a high standard to make plays on defense. Defense turns into quick and easy offense, and that’s what happened.” – Okeke
The Magic will look to win their third straight and fourth in their last five games when they take the Amway Center floor against the Detroit Pistons on Sunday at 7 p.m. This will actually be the first of back-to-back home meetings against the Pistons, who are currently in last place in the East. One of their bright spots has been the play of Jerami Grant, their prized signee in the offseason. Now in his seventh NBA season, Grant is averaging career highs in points (23.8), rebounds (5.3) and assists (2.9).