Orlando Magic vs. Charlotte Hornets: Game Preview

Cole Anthony, LaMelo Ball
by Dan Savage

ORLANDO -- Over the last two games, the Orlando Magic have experienced both sides of a thriller.

After riding high when Cole Anthony knocked down a game-winning, buzzer-beating triple against the Minnesota Timberwolves, they suffered the agony of a close defeat when Evan Fournier’s potential go-ahead shot just missed in the closing moments of a two-point overtime loss to the Indiana Pacers.

Now, back at home after a lengthy five-game road trip, the Magic (7-9) will attempt to build on their recent offensive improvement and capitalize on being back on their home floor when they host the first game of a back-to-back against the Charlotte Hornets (6-9) at 7 p.m. ET.

“We just (have to keep making) the right plays,” said Magic swingman Dwayne Bacon. “I feel like these last two games have come down to the wire just because we’ve been playing the right way on the offensive end. By moving the ball well, driving the ball, making open shots – I think we shot pretty close to fifty percent from three last game – so we just have to keep doing that and we’ll be fine.”

They’ll also need to be committed to their transition defense against a Hornets squad that thrives in the fastbreak. Charlotte is averaging 16 fastbreak points per game, fourth-best in the association.

“They get into transition very well, so we have to get back,” Bacon said of his former squad. “They have Devonte' (Graham), Terry (Rozier), guys who can shoot the three really well. They’ve got Gordon (Hayward) that can really play. So, they’ve got three offensive guys on their wings that can really get going for them. So, we’ve got to find a way to stay locked in and not get too spread out on the defensive end and just play a team game.”

After being away from the comforts of home during a nine-day, five-game road trip, the Magic will play seven of their next eight games at Amway Center and won’t have to leave the state of Florida – their lone road contest is against the Toronto Raptors who are playing in Tampa Bay this season – until Feb. 9 when they visit the Portland Trail Blazers.

They’ll certainly attempt to make the most of this stretch and closer resemble the squad that started the season 6-2 rather than the team that’s 1-7 over their last eight games.

“It’s very important for us to play well at home and defend home court,” said Nikola Vucevic, who is off to a stellar start to the season averaging 23.3 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. “Hopefully, we can take advantage of it. We have to try and win as many games as we can at home, and it starts on Sunday.”

QUOTE TO NOTE: “It was a great relationship. It still is. He’s a guy that I can call and text about anything. He, for the most part, every time, he’s answered me. And he’s a very busy guy, so you probably don’t expect him to answer much, but he does. He gave me a chance to be in this league and he took a chance on me. Obviously, he sees something in me, and when I left Charlotte, he just texted me like just allow yourself to get the best of yourself. He sees something in me still. Even though it didn’t work out there, he sees something in me still and I feel like that will always be one of my role models just because of how successful he became in this game on and off the court. How he carries himself. Not much into the negativity. Always a positive guy. Just continues to try and go forward.” – Magic swingman Dwayne Bacon on his relationship with Hornets owner Michael Jordan, whose team drafted the Florida State alum in the second round of the 2017 NBA Draft.

KEY STAT: Orlando will play two home back-to-back sets during the first half of the season – this set against Charlotte and Feb. 5-6 against Chicago. The Magic have played 23 home and home back-to-backs in franchise history and is 13-10 in the first game and 10-13 in the second game. Orlando has swept both games seven times, the opponent has swept seven times, and there have been nine splits.

INJURY UPDATE: Al-Farouq Aminu (right knee rehabilitation), Michael Carter-Williams (sprained left foot, Markelle Fultz (torn ACL, left knee), Aaron Gordon (hip/back soreness), Jonathan Isaac (left knee rehabilitation), and Chuma Okeke (left knee bone bruise) are all listed as out.

RIVALS REPORT: In this edition of our Rivals Report series, I brought back special guest, Hornets.com beat writer Sam Perley, who’s covered the team for the past seven seasons. He’s a great resource for all things Buzz City, including the Hornets and their NBA 2K League squad. He was kind enough to take the time to answer three key questions about the Hornets.

Savage: “Since we last spoke in the preseason, what have been some of the biggest developments with this Hornets team and what have you seen throughout the start of the season?”

Perley: “The passing is definitely the biggest thing. Right now, the Hornets are on pace for a historically high assist percentage. I think they’re five or six points ahead of the second-place team – it was at seventy-five percent going into (Friday) night and the difference between first and second was the same as second and nineteenth – so the passing has been really, really impressive. They do a really, really good job of sharing the ball. A lot of that comes down to Devonte' Graham, LaMelo (Ball), Gordon Hayward too. He’s been really good in that area. A lot of guys averaging multiple assists per game.

The second thing that’s standing out is Gordon Hayward’s play. Gordon Hayward has been really, really good. I think the last time we talked he didn’t play in the two preseason games in Orlando because he broke his finger. But he looks as sharp as ever. Thirty-four points (on Friday) night, he had forty-four points earlier this year. He looks exactly like the player I think he was hoping to be in Charlotte with a more carved out role. A little bit more responsibility. The team struggled on (Friday) night, but he was magnificent. He’s shooting fifty-forty-ninety right now and averaging twenty-three points per game, so he’s been really, really good so far. Really, really good.

The third thing is an easy one. It has to be the play of LaMelo. He’s struggled the last couple of games. I think the league is getting a little bit of a read on him. The first ten or twelve games, he’s coming off the bench and he’s scoring and rebounding. His rebounding has been really, really impressive. The way he can read the ball off the glass. His instincts – particularly he has great defensive instincts – his playmaking, steals, his passing, he’s the total package. Right now, just across the board, he’s had a magnificent attitude. Asking questions, wanting to get better, great competitor. So those are probably the three biggest things that have stood out to me this season for the Hornets.”

Savage: “Speaking of LaMelo, how is he adjusting to this NBA schedule, especially without having a summer league, a truncated training camp and shortened preseason, and how are the Hornets bringing him along?”

Perley: “It’s definitely different. All these rookies have had such weird summers and transitions, but he didn’t play a single competitive game since November of 2019 in Australia. He is coming off the bench right now. I think they’re bringing him along kind of slow. They’re still pretty comfortable with Terry and Devonte’ in the starting lineup. Terry is having a career year right now. Devonte’ had a slow start shooting wise, but has been really good passing, defensively, and not turning the ball over. He had a nice twenty-four-point night and seems to be getting going. I think they’re taking it slow. I don’t think they want to dump a whole lot on his plate. He’s still only nineteen years old. He’s developed really good chemistry in the second unit with Miles Bridges who went from bench player to starter last year to back to the bench and is playing more small-ball four. He’s been playing really, really good in terms of just finding the role that I think best suits him. When you draft a guy third overall and you draft a guy that has the talent that LaMelo Ball has, there’s always going to be, do you want to get him acclimated to being a starter sooner than later? It’s not the easiest situation necessarily because you want to make sure that you just don’t swap guys in and out of the starting rotation. There’s a lot of chemistry and a lot of things you have to take into consideration. I think (Hornets Head Coach James Borrego) and crew is kind of taking it slow. He’s been tremendous. I don’t think there’s any sort of itchiness from him to start. I think he likes his role. He’s averaging twenty-five minutes a game. He’s closing a lot of games too. He’s playing in crucial moments. He’s getting experience. Again, I’ve been so impressed with how ready he’s been for the NBA. I did not necessarily expect him to be as advanced and instinctive as he is. They’ll give him more responsibility as the season goes on. He’s hit a little bit of a rough patch the last couple of games, but that, as you know, is just rookie stuff.”

Savage: “How is Devonte’ adjusting? He probably of all the Hornets players had to make the biggest adjustment, I would assume, with all the different playmakers and scoring threats that were added to the team during this offseason?”

Perley: “JB has tinkered a little bit with a Terry-LaMelo-Devonte’ lineup. I don’t think we saw it against the Bulls, but he has used it a little bit here and there. I think what’s affected Devonte’ the most is Gordon being here. Gordon has handled a lot more of the scoring, a lot more of the playmaking and facilitating. I mean, Gordon’s been tremendous, but I think it’s tough when you’re Devonte’ and you’re the primary ballhandler last year. His usage rate was incredibly high, three-pointers, getting a lot of shots. I think he’s still getting used to it right now, but I wrote an article earlier this week about how net-rating wise, at least up until last Saturday, Devonte’ was our highest net-rating, highest defensive rating. He was second in the league in assist-to-turnovers. He was top twelve in the league in assists and steals. He was shooting something like forty-one percent over his last four games after a really bad shooting start to the season. He’s starting to come on and starting to find his rhythm a little bit. P.J. Washington is handling the ball a little bit more, Miles is handling it a little bit more, the Martin twins (Caleb and Cody) are handling the ball a lot. That’s kind of what JB wanted. He wanted more ball handlers out there. It’s inevitably going to affect a guy who had the ball more often than not last year. Devonte’ has been great. He’s had a great attitude about it. He wants to win. He wants the team to be successful. He’s starting to come on a little bit. It’s an adjustment and obviously with an abbreviated training camp and offseason, he had to pick it up a little bit quicker, but he’s been really good, and I think he’s started to come on lately these last few games.”


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