Shorthanded Magic Fall to Rockets in Houston

by Josh Cohen

The Lead

If the Orlando Magic were injury-less, their starting lineup this season would likely feature Nikola Vucevic, Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Markelle Fultz. On Friday against the Houston Rockets, only one of them – Vucevic – was available. Being shorthanded, though, was not the only reason the Magic lost 132-90. The team’s lack of energy and readiness, which Head Coach Steve Clifford was irate about afterward, prevented Orlando from being competitive in this contest.

Injury Report

Only 10 players were available for the Magic on Friday, all of whom saw playing time. Just as a precaution, the team decided to hold Gordon out on the first night of a back-to-back. He injured his left hamstring at the Disney bubble, and the Magic want to play it safe so he doesn’t reaggravate it. Fournier was hoping to give it a go, but he was still bothered by back spasms during warmups and the team didn’t want to risk it. Also still out were Michael Carter-Williams (foot), Chuma Okeke (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (knee). Fultz tore his ACL in the last game and is out for the rest of the season, while Isaac is recuperating from his torn ACL and won’t be available this year.

Rookie Watch

In his first start of his NBA career, Cole Anthony posted 15 points, two rebounds and three assists. The injury to Fultz has thrusted the 6-foot-3, 190-pound point guard into a more prominent role. Not having a traditional rookie offseason, which normally includes a summer league, voluntary workouts and a full training camp, is going to make it more difficult for the 20-year-old to adjust. But, with his supreme confidence and trust from his teammates, Anthony is certainly prepared to work through his first-year growing pains.

Rivals Report

The Rockets are an interesting team in an interesting situation. The big storyline coming into the 2020-21 season was tied to James Harden and whether he would remain in Houston or if the Rockets would trade him, which he reportedly requested them to do. If he does stay with the Rockets, they have a roster, as currently constructed, that could contend for a title, as long as John Wall remains healthy and plays the way he has so far this season and if Christian Wood, Houston’s other major offseason acquisition, continues developing at the pace he has been the last couple years.

Top Performers

During training camp, Khem Birch told reporters the main thing he worked on during the offseason was his corner 3-point shot. It was only a matter of time before he would start taking and making them, and Friday was the start of that, as the 6-foot-9, 233-pounder, who scored 11 points, knocked down his first 3-pointer of his NBA career. With four minutes and change left in the third quarter, Birch spotted up in the right 3-point corner and buried it. It was his first try from beyond the arc this season and third of his career. Vucevic, meanwhile, drilled three triples on Friday during his 22-point, 12-rebound effort. Orlando’s starting center is shooting 44 percent from downtown through nine games. The Magic’s other big man, Mo Bamba, also had a solid night in just his third game back, scoring 12 points and grabbing seven rebounds in 13 minutes.

Key Stats

The Rockets may have a new coaching staff this season, but that doesn’t mean they won’t still be chucking up an abundance of threes. On Friday, they sank 22 of them, tied for the third most in the NBA this season. P.J. Tucker, one of the league’s best corner 3-point shooters, drained five threes and Harden, Wall and Sterling Brown each buried three of them. Earlier this year, the Bucks set the NBA record for most made threes in a game with 29 of them against the Heat.

Quote of the Night

“This game had a lot more to do with lack of readiness, and a lack of professionalism, and a lack of effort than it did talent. I’m not saying we would have won, but we had a lot of effort players who made no effort. Mistake after mistake after mistake, and we ain’t beating anybody like that. We’ve been a good effort team all year. I don’t expect it to happen again. But that’s your story. Nothing else mattered.” – Clifford

Up Next

The Magic are back in action on Saturday when they take on Luka Doncic and the Mavs at 8:30 p.m. ET in Dallas. The Mavs are coming off a thrilling overtime win over the Nuggets on Thursday. Doncic exploded for 38 points and added nine rebounds and 13 assists in the win, Dallas’ second in a row. Maxi Kleber drilled a clutch 3-pointer late in regulation and he had a key assist to Josh Richardson in the extra session.

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