Stifling Defense and Hot Outside Shooting Propels Magic to Win Over Cavs
The only thing that has prevented Aaron Gordon from taking his game to an All-Star level to this point of his career is his long-range shooting. On nights when he’s knocking down his threes at a high clip, like he did on Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Amway Center, the 6-foot-9, 220-pound versatile forward is a nightmare for opponents to deal with. Now in his seventh NBA season, all with the Magic, Gordon scored a team-high 24 points, drilling six 3-pointers in the process, to lead Orlando (5-2) to a 103-83 victory over Cleveland (4-3).
Gordon was honest and direct following Saturday’s loss to the Thunder when he said he and his teammates need to make open shots, plain and simple. A reversal from their last two contests when they combined to make just 17 of their 66 attempts (25.8 percent) from beyond the arc, the Magic were scorching from deep during Monday’s win. They drilled 15 of their 34 tries. Gordon matched his career high for most threes in a game with six of them, while Nikola Vucevic, Dwayne Bacon, Terrence Ross and Gary Clark sank two each.
Aside from Gordon (24 points, 11 rebounds), Vucevic (23 points, eight boards) and Ross (15 points), two others deserving special praise are Khem Birch and Michael Carter-Williams. Birch’s defense, both on the interior and the perimeter when he was forced to switch, was outstanding. Also important was his screening, rolls into the paint and boxing out. He finished with 12 points and a career-tying high 12 rebounds. Although he struggled with his shooting, Carter-Williams’ on-ball and help defense was excellent. He disrupted several of Collin Sexton’s shots when tasked with guarding Cleveland’s speedster. Clark, who posted six points and five rebounds, also played a big role on both ends.
Rarely does a team rank in the top 10 in 3-point defense and not make the playoffs. Last season, for instance, all of the teams that ranked in the top 10 in opponent 3-point percentage reached the postseason, including the two clubs that ultimately played in the Finals, the Lakers and Heat. One of the Magic’s strengths on defense so far this season has been defending the 3-point line, either by running shooters off of it or by properly challenging long-distance shots. The Cavs on Monday shot just 10-of-28 (35.7 percent) from downtown. Overall, they shot just 38.4 percent. Going into Monday’s NBA action, Orlando was tied for eighth in opponent 3-point percentage and tied for second in opponent 3-pointers made.
Up two with about eight minutes left in the third quarter, the Magic outscored the Cavs 28-8 the rest of the period. Everyone that was on the floor for Orlando during that stretch got involved. Gordon, Vucevic, Ross, Bacon, Birch, Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony all made at least one shot, most of them coming assisted. Fultz had four of his eight dimes in that span, while Anthony, who finished with nine points, five rebounds and four assists, dished out two of them.
Evan Fournier missed his second consecutive game with back spasms. He was questionable coming into Monday’s game and is listed as day-to-day. Also still out was James Ennis III (hamstring). However, Ennis has been playing in two-on-two scrimmages during practice and is getting closer to returning. Acquired in a trade deadline deal from the 76ers last season, Ennis re-signed with the Magic in the offseason. Mo Bamba played his first minutes of the season. He entered the game with 4:28 left and grabbed two rebounds and handed out one assist. Darius Garland (shoulder) and Isaac Okoro (health and safety protocols) sat out for the Cavs, while Dante Exum didn’t return after injuring his calf less than a minute into the game.
Quote of the Night
“Winning is the only thing that matters. How ever you get there, how ever you get to that point is the only thing that matters. It doesn’t matter who has what stats. At the end of the game, if we can have another win in the win column, that’s the most important thing.” - Gordon
The Magic and Cavs will clash again at Amway Center on Wednesday at 7 p.m. This season to try and reduce travel amid the pandemic, teams will periodically play each other twice in a row in the same city. Right after Christmas, the Magic played the Wizards in back-to-back games in the nation’s capital.