Orlando Magic vs. Brooklyn Nets: Game Preview

Cole Anthony
by Dan Savage

ORLANDO – In their impressive victory over the red-hot Utah Jazz, the Orlando Magic demonstrated that they can compete with the league’s best squads if they remain true to their team principles and bring high levels of energy and focus.

The Magic (3-8) will need to replicate that effort on Wednesday when the Brooklyn Nets (7-4) and their lethal scoring duo of Kevin Durant and James Harden come to town at 7 p.m. ET.

In that victory over Utah, Orlando flashed all the elements that head coach Jamahl Mosley has been preaching since his arrival. The Magic delivered a staunch defensive effort, remained true to playing with pace and the pass, and came up with a number of ‘bell plays’ down the stretch that ignited the crowd and brought home a win.

“It was great. It just shows when you’re playing well that the fans are going to get behind you and when you’re playing hard, the fans are going to get behind you,” said Wendell Carter Jr of the atmosphere at Amway Center in that win. “That’s just a taste of what we’re capable of doing as a team going against one of the best teams in the West. It’s just fuel for us going into this next game against a great team in the East.”

Through four games in November, the Magic have the NBA’s third-best defensive rating (99.7) and are blocking the second-most shots in the league (7.0). Those factors will be critical against a Nets offense that features the association’s leading scorer in Durant (29.5 points per game) and a perennial MVP candidate in Harden.

“I think that’s one of the biggest things, our ability to stay within coverages, understanding who’s who on the floor, getting out to shooters, understanding the drivers, and obviously as things break down, they understand that you have to keep playing through even if there are mistakes on the floor,” said Mosley, the 15th head coach in franchise history. “You continue to play through until you get the rebound.”

Once again, getting off to a strong start will be paramount for Orlando as playing catch-up against a team that features scorers of Durant and Harden’s caliber will be extremely difficult.

Thus far, that has not been too much of an issue for the Magic. Their historically young starting lineup, which features two rookies in Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner, still maintains the NBA’s best net rating (18.1) for any group that’s seen at least 50 minutes of court time together this season.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun, for sure,” said Wagner of potentially guarding Durant. “It’s going to be a little weird being on that same court as him, but at the end of the day, we want to win the game and I don’t want him to score. I’m sure everyone else on the team doesn’t either. (He’s) one of those players (where) all you can really do is making it tough on him. Sometimes they’re going to make all of them, sometimes they’re going to miss a couple, but you can’t be discouraged by those makes or misses.”

IN AND OUT: For Orlando, Michael Carter-Williams (left ankle), Markelle Fultz (left knee), Jonathan Isaac (left knee), and E’Twaun Moore (left knee sprain) all remain out.

For Brooklyn, Nic Claxton (non-COVID illness), David Duke Jr. (G League – Two-Way), Kessler Edwards (G League – Two-Way), and Kyrie Irving (not with team) are out.

KEY STAT: Against the Jazz, Cole Anthony scored a season-high 33 points, which was his third career 30-plus point game. In the process, Anthony became the third-youngest player (21 years - 176 days) in Magic history to record his third 30-point game, trailing only Shaquille O’Neal (20 years - 309 days) and Dwight Howard (21 years - 63 days).

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: “To some degree, this Nets team will go as far as their superstars take them. What have you seen from Kevin Durant and James Harden to start the season?”

Winfield: “First things first. Kevin is Kevin. He’s as good as he’s ever been. If there’s anyone that you want with the ball in their hands to get you a bucket, he’s just done it so many times. The Nets offense will go through its sets and someone will end up with a shot and then that shot won’t be the best shot, so the ball just works its way right back to Kevin Durant. It kind of reminds me of what Allen Iverson said and what Carmelo Anthony said of how they’re not dribbling up the court trying to take every shot. Sometimes they pass the ball, and the ball just ends up back in their hands with about seven seconds to go, and yeah, Kevin’s got to make something happen. And he just is continuously able to do that under pressure. The Bulls, the Raptors, the Pistons, everybody tries their best to throw their best individual defender at him and (they) can’t do it. You’re never really going to have to worry about Kevin Durant. He might be a little over critical of himself talking about how he missed a couple of shots, or he took a couple of shots that he wants back, but Kevin is the least of the Nets worries right now. He’s as good as advertised.

James, on the other hand, still is recovering from the hamstring injury he suffered last season in the playoffs. He said that he didn’t play any basketball during the offseason. He just rehabbed and that’s starting to show. (He has a) high turnover counts early. And then he’s also getting used to this new way of officiating where we’re seeing blatant fouls not get called because officials have it in their mind that James is trying to sell a call. I wrote this earlier in the season like this is kind of James Harden’s day of reckoning now where he’s been being deceptive and he’s just been getting over on the refs for so long, but now they’re like ‘hold on. We’re going to pump the breaks here.’ But he’s got to battle through that and also maintain some type of levelheadedness because these referees aren’t giving him the calls that he’s used to, and we get that. But they’re also just missing plain foul calls. One instance against Toronto, he literally broke Gary Trent Jr.’s ankles and Gary Trent Jr. starts back peddling and then falls into Harden knocking the ball out, and the refs don’t call a foul. They just call a turnover. That’s an area where he has some arguing to do. With Harden so far, he hasn’t been the same guy that we’ve been accustomed to seeing, that we saw in Houston all of those years, that we saw especially in Brooklyn towards the latter stretch of the regular season. He’s still got some ways to go before he gets to that point. But he’s starting to trend in the right direction. He’s a little bit more aggressive these days. I think he’ll try to go for thirty or forty against the Magic.”

Savage: “Obviously, there’s a lot going on with Kyrie Irving. How is the team handling his absence right now?”

Winfield: “Since training camp, the Nets have said, ‘hey, we’re going to worry about the guys that we have on this team and if something changes that allows Kyrie to come participate then we’ll adjust.’ But until then, they’re just worrying about the guys that they have in town. It’s tough because you could say what you want about the headaches, say what you want about the availability, but when he’s on that roster, when he’s on any team’s roster, he is a player that you have to account for. Twenty-seven points, six assists, (and) five rebounds a game, last season, fifty-forty-ninety club. The inability to guard him one-on-one and to stop him from getting to his spots is just something that defenses can’t necessarily account for when you have Kevin Durant and James Harden. As crazy as it sounds, it does make the Nets a little bit more predictable. If you don’t have that third unstoppable scorer, we know it can only be one of these two things, you’re going to run through KD or you’re going to run through James Harden or you’re going to run a play for someone else through one of those two guys.

I think we’re seeing the Nets try to compensate in other ways for not having Kyrie. In their last few games, their defense has been really, really strong. Stronger than we’re accustomed to. That’s good to see, but they’re also a weak team on the offensive glass. Chicago just hounded them on the offensive glass the other night. That’s something that just by roster makeup, they can’t really do much about. With Kyrie in the past, they were able to compensate for some of those shortcomings because, yeah, you might not be a great defensive team, you might not be great on the boards, but, hey, you got KD, Kyrie, and James Harden. You’re a threat to score one-hundred-and-forty (points). Well, scoring one-hundred-and-forty (points) isn’t as easy anymore. As we saw against the Bulls (on Monday) night – granted it was the second game of a back-to-back – they can’t just rely on scoring that one-hundred-and-forty anymore. And now, you’ve got to do the little things. You’ve got to hustle for loose balls, you’ve got to try and get as many stops as possible, (and) you’ve got to move the ball around. They had twenty-nine assists – I believe – against the Raptors, which was their fifth win in a row before losing to the Bulls. So, we’re seeing a team that’s trying to compensate for not having Kyrie Irving by, what they’ll say, is by committee. That’s moving the ball around and that’s by generating as good of looks as possible. Trying to get stops on defense, which gets you in early offense in transition. They’re learning that that’s easier said than done, especially against the better teams. The Bucks, the Hornets, the Heat, and the Bulls have all given the Nets losses this season.”

Savage: “We all know how important KD and Harden are to the Nets success, but with Kyrie out, right now who is the third most important player to how far this team will go?”

Winfield: “I’ll give you a three-a and a three-b. Three-a is going to be Patty Mills, who is coming off the bench as a spark plug. He’s been somewhat reliable. When he’s on he’s reliable and when he’s off like against the Bulls where he shot two-for-nine. So, he gives you that force, that guy that a defense has to respect coming off the bench. But also, so does LaMarcus Aldridge, who’s the three-b. LaMarcus Aldridge has more than twenty-thousand points now and I’d say at least eighteen-thousand of them are off of mid-range jump shots. (laughter) That’s all he does. He does not miss those when he’s wide open. He’s been a great look for this team because they’ve been starting Blake Griffin at the five, but Blake Griffin is not the same athlete that he once was and he’s not a reliable shooter. He’s very hot and cold from downtown and you need someone who’s going to be able to generate that offense when you can’t go through Kevin Durant or you can’t go through James Harden. LaMarcus has been that guy. He finds ways to get his shot off in the midrange. Those are probably the two most important guys outside of Kevin Durant and James Harden right now.

I want to say Joe Harris, but Joe Harris hasn’t been reliable or consistent from three-point range to start the season. The idea is that he’s going to start to get a little more comfortable as the season goes on. But early on, you’re looking at Patty Mills, you’re looking at LaMarcus Aldridge, and, off the bench, you’re also looking at DeAndre' Bembry, who’s been getting a lot of playing time, especially down the stretch and early in games. He’s become one of the first players off the bench for Brooklyn and that’s just by virtue of the energy that he’s bringing to the floor (and) making those hustle plays we were talking about. He’s just been a very reliable defender and defensive stopper. At one point in the season, he was holding opponents to twenty-three percent shooting, whoever he was guarding. So, those are the guys you look for on Brooklyn’s bench.”

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