Magic Fall Short to Nets in James Harden’s Brooklyn Debut

by Josh Cohen

The Lead

NBA fans tuning in from all over the world to watch James Harden in his Brooklyn Nets debut on Saturday night also got the opportunity to check out the ever-improving Nikola Vucevic, who has played at an All-Star, maybe even “superstar,” level to this point of the season. The 7-foot, 260-pound center, who is in his 10th NBA campaign, erupted for a season-high 34 points and tied a career high with six made 3-pointers during the Orlando Magic’s 122-115 loss to the high-powered Nets, who got 42 points from Kevin Durant and a 32-point, 12-rebound, 14-assist triple-double from Harden, the NBA’s scoring champ the last three years.

Top Performer

Normally, the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award goes to an emerging young player just entering his prime. Last year, for example, Brandon Ingram, 22 years old at the time, captured the award. The prior season it was the then recently-turned 25-year-old Pascal Siakam who claimed it. Age shouldn’t make a difference though when assessing who around the league has advanced their talents the most, as Vucevic has clearly done. At the moment, the 30-year-old is averaging 22.8 points, over three more than last season, and is shooting 42.8 percent from 3-point range, nine percent better than a campaign ago. He filled up the stat sheet on Saturday in Brooklyn with 34 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and five steals.

Rivals Report

Durant and Harden gave everyone a taste of just how potent they can be together. The Nets will be even mightier when they get Kyrie Irving back. In his debut with the Nets following the four-team blockbuster trade that went down earlier this week, Harden’s playmaking was extraordinary, with many of his feeds going to KD. The two combined to shoot 24-of-44 from the floor. Harden made history, too, becoming the first player ever to notch a triple-double in a team debut. This is the second time in Harden and Durant’s careers they are teammates. They played together in OKC for three years before the Thunder dealt Harden to Houston in 2012.

Key Stretch

The Magic pulled within two midway through the fourth quarter when Terrence Ross, who had a strong bounce-back performance with 23 points, knocked down a mid-range jumper. The Nets responded, subsequently, with five unanswered points. Durant buried a jumper and Joe Harris, one of the league’s premier 3-point shooters, sank one from distance. Orlando had the deficit down to three a couple times down the stretch, but either Durant or Harden would make a shot or find a teammate to deny the Magic from getting any closer.

Key Stat

The Magic’s offense, which had been stagnant and sluggish the last few games, had more zip to it in Brooklyn. Orlando accumulated a season-best 28 assists, a category it ranked last in the league in coming into Saturday’s action, and it buried 14 3-pointers, although it only made 30.4 percent of its attempts from downtown. The Magic also did a solid job crashing the glass on the offensive end. The Nets, meanwhile, did a ton of damage in transition. They finished with 22 fast break points, an area they will likely be among the best in at season’s end with Harden now orchestrating much of the offense.

Rookie Watch

Cole Anthony had one of his best outings as a pro. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound guard, whom the Magic drafted 15th overall out of UNC in 2020, matched his career high with 16 points and dished out a career-best eight assists. He also had three rebounds and three steals. Since jumping into the starting lineup following the devastating season-ending ACL injury to Markelle Fultz, Anthony has scored in double figures four times.

Quote of the Night

“The good thing for us is that we had a really good start. We’re not two-and-seven, we’re not three-and-seven, we’re right there. We’re almost five-hundred, and we really got to figure out how to maintain and take that next step. We have guys missing, but that can’t be the reason why we don’t grow. We’ll be fine. We just got to play through it, play tough, keep that same mindset and intensity that we had tonight and things will start to turn (around).” - Ross

Up Next

The Magic will stay in the Big Apple and play the New York Knicks for a MLK Day matinee. Tip-off is Monday at 12 p.m. The Knicks, like the Magic, got off to a terrific start, but have since cooled off. They have lost five straight, with their last defeat coming in Cleveland on Friday night. Leading New York so far this season is Julius Randle, who is averaging 23.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.7 assists, all career highs.

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