Orlando Magic at Brooklyn Nets: Game Preview

Nikola Vucevic
by Dan Savage

ORLANDO -- Fresh off a successful homestand, winning three of four games, the Orlando Magic head back out on the road for a single stop against the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Despite dropping their last game at Amway Center, the Magic have been using staunch defensive efforts to fuel a successful stretch of basketball. Orlando has won four of its last six games overall and is currently just two victories out of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and three triumphs away from the fourth slot.

The Magic possess the league’s best defensive rating over their last six games (since Feb. 12) and are also second in blocks per game (6.2) and first in limiting their opponent’s second-chance points (10.6) over that span.

“The big improvement areas have been points in the paint, protecting the rim better, and defensive rebounding … and we haven’t turned the ball over as much,” Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford said prior to the team’s second game against the Pistons. “We have to continue to build on our half-court defense, we have to stop turning the ball over, but we have to be better in transition defense.”

Those areas will be put to the test against a star-powered Nets squad that’s won seven straight games and has put up 121.4 points per contest during that span, which is the third-best mark in the NBA.

“They’re one of the best teams in the NBA, they’re playing great,” said Magic All-Star center Nikola Vucevic. “It’s going to be a difficult game. They can obviously score the ball very well. They have a lot of great players on the court.”

QUOTES TO NOTE: “It was one of the best feelings ever (to be named an All-Star again). Just a huge honor. Something that I’m very proud (to) be able to do in my career, make an All-Star team twice now, especially this year I think with all the guys in the East that could have made it. Just very humbled, huge honor like I said and hopefully not the last one. I have to thank my teammates and the coaches for putting me in a position to be able to do this from the beginning of the year and pushing me…Without them I wouldn’t have been in position to do it, so big thanks to them and just huge honor for me.” - Vucevic

KEY STATS: The NBA announced the second half of the 2020-21 schedule on Wednesday. For the Magic, the second half of their schedule features eight back-to-back contests – three away/away, three home/home and two away/home.

During the second half of the regular season, Orlando will play 11 games in March (five home, six away), 16 games in April (eight home, eight away) and nine games in May (three home, six away).

The Magic will have a four-game homestand from April 7-12. There will also be two three-game homestands March 23-26 and April 22-26.

Orlando’s final home game of the regular season will be on Sunday, May 9 against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Magic will close out the regular season with four straight road games from May 11-16 with their final stop taking place in Philadelphia.

INJURY UPDATE: Cole Anthony (non-displaced fracture, right rib), Aaron Gordon (left ankle sprain), Markelle Fultz (torn ACL, left knee), and Jonathan Isaac (left knee rehabilitation) are out. Karim Mane (G League/two-way) is not available.

For the Nets, Jeff Green (right shoulder contusion) and Landry Shamet (chest contusion) are questionable, and Spencer Dinwiddie (ACL), Kevin Durant (strained left hamstring), and Reggie Perry (G League/two-way) are out.

RIVALS REPORT: In this edition of our Rivals Report series, we’re joined by Brooklyn Nets beat writer Kristian Winfield, who covers the team for the New York Daily News. He was kind enough to take the time and provide his insight on the Nets.

Savage: “The last time we saw the Nets, it was James Harden’s first game with the team and Kyrie Irving did not play. Since then, how have those two meshed together in Brooklyn’s backcourt?”

Winfield: “They kind of came to an agreement of sorts. James Harden is going to run the point guard and Kyrie is going to run the shooting guard. It’s just a natural fit. No matter which way you slice it, James Harden is a better passer than Kyrie Irving. He just sees the floor like a quarterback, almost. Just look at the box score some of these nights – thirteen, eleven, fifteen, twelve assists. He just does it on a nightly basis. He just has a knack for finding his teammates. What we saw in Houston in a way where he was responsible for so much of the offense in terms of scoring, well now you’ve got a guy like Kyrie, whose M.O. it is to be aggressive and score. He’s also got other guys around him like Joe Harris that want to go out there and shoot threes and you’ve got other guys like Landry Shamet and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, who are willing catch and shooters and who know what their roles are. I think that’s really the biggest difference since the first game that James Harden played with the Nets to now. Guys have a firm understanding of what their roles are. Kyrie’s role is to go out there and score and be aggressive and try to be the head of the snake in a lot of ways in terms of setting that aggressive scoring tone. James is out there just looking to playmake and score when necessary. We’ve seen that work out. Even in the game that Kyrie didn’t play, against the Suns, during this winning streak, James Harden goes for thirty-eight (points) and eleven assists. He can still get you that thirty, forty ball if he needs to. He’s shown that he doesn’t necessarily have to in order to be effective. I think that’s what they’re finding out. They’re figuring out that Kyrie is best suited as the aggressive scorer and playmaker when necessary and James is best suited as the primary facilitator, playmaker, who can score when necessary. That’s the dynamic we’re seeing play out in Brooklyn. Now, these guys have learned where each other likes the ball. That’s where you’re seeing a lot of growth between these two guys”

Savage: “Outside of Kyrie and James, during this team’s seven-game winning streak, what have been some of the keys that have led to this impressive stretch?”

Winfield: “They’re starting to play defense. That’s really be the one, if you want to call it, Achilles' heel for this team. Obviously, you have all these offensive weapons, but if you can’t get any stops, you’re going to see one-hundred-and-forty, one-hundred-and-fifty-point games on a nightly basis. You can’t win like that, let alone win a championship. We talked to the players, we’ve talked to the coaches about it, after that Pistons loss – the Pistons are not a very good basketball team – and to go out and let them hang one-hundred-and-twenty-two points on you and beat you is really a wake-up call for this Nets team. (Head coach) Steve Nash came out and called this team out. Flat out, he said, ‘they’re not playing with any pride.’ He then he kind of used some of those buzz words. He said, ‘this team has to get an understanding of what they want to get out of this experience.’ That’s what he told us, so imagine what he told the players in there. And they responded. Since then, they’ve been in an actual inspired defensive team. They’re holding teams to less than thirty points in a quarter, twenty-five, twenty-two-point quarters. We’ve seen them do it time and time again. And that’s the biggest difference because offensively this team was always going to be ok. You put Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden on the same floor, it doesn’t matter, I could be the head coach for all that matters. You’ve got those offensive weapons, you’ve got shooters, you’ve got dunkers, they’re going to figure it out on that end of the floor. Defensively, was always the issue. If you can’t stop anybody, it doesn’t matter how many times you are going to score, it’s going to turn into a shootout every game. That’s not what you want. This team has actually learned to play some defense. Whether they can continue to do so over the course of the season remains to be seen, but over the course of this seven-game winning streak, that’s been the constant. They’ve defended at a high level. If not for forty-eight minutes, they’ve defended for at least half the game. And when you have an offense like this team has, that’s really all you need. If you can play good defense for half of the game and play great offense for the entire game, you’re going to be ok.”

Savage: “As we look at this game tonight, if you’re the Orlando Magic how do you attack this Nets team and what are some of the areas you try and exploit?”

Winfield: “That Magic had a pretty good formula: get the ball to Vucevic and get the hell out of the way. (laughter) It doesn’t seem like this Nets team has had an answer for him specifically. That’s not just this season but dating back years now. If I had to guess, I would say Vucevic is averaging at least in the twenty-eight-points-per-game ballpark against the Nets. That’s because the team is terrible at defending the paint and they’re terrible at defending stretch bigs. And Vucevic is both of those things in one. Number one, shout out to him for getting the All-Star nod. I always thought he was a deserving All-Star. I know he got it once before. He’s a really skilled big man and the Nets just have problems defending guys like that. They also have problems sometimes defending in transition. If you can get stops, which against this Nets team is easier said than done, but if you’ve got Terrence Ross running up and down the floor and shooting threes and dunking on people and you’ve got Vucevic down low doing his thing, and popping out for the three-ball, you’ve got a chance. At the end of the day, though, they’re going to have to find a way to make it tough on James Harden. At this point, he’s the engine. Kyrie can get it going, but he’s a guy we’ve seen at times be inefficient. This is a good season for him in terms of efficiency. But when he doesn’t get rolling and he has one of those six-for-fourteen, seven-for-twenty-one nights, he’s going to continue to look for his shot, even if he’s cold. So, if you can put that pressure on James Harden and James Harden can’t get it going and then Kyrie is trying to force it, and he’s giving you one of those six-for-fourteen, seven-for-twenty-one nights that would be a way to slow this down. Then, on top of that, you have to get points, because you’re not going to hold a guy like Kyrie or James Harden to a poor shooting night for the entire game. They’re going to pick it up in the fourth quarter. It’s really going to have to be a concerted effort on all cylinders for the Magic. In my opinion, it all starts with Nikola Vucevic having one of those thirty-point, ten-rebound, and five-assist games.”

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