Orlando Magic at Charlotte Hornets: Game Preview

Cole Anthony
by Dan Savage

ORLANDO -- Much as they have throughout the course of the season, the Orlando Magic are still adapting to injuries and acclimating new faces to the rotation even as their 2020-21 campaign is winding down.

With just six games left on their schedule – five on the road and one at home – the Magic (21-45) will continue the process evaluating their young talent and building winning habits when they visit the Charlotte Hornets (32-34) on Friday at 8 p.m. ET.

Even shorthanded and without much practice time, head coach Steve Clifford believes that his team can make strides over the final stretch of the season.

“Two of the things that we are really struggling with you can getter better with – and I just told (the team) this – on the plane ride,” Clifford explained. “One is running back on defense. There are no drills that you need to do. There are drills that you can do to emphasize it, but at the end of the day, it’s emphasis and everybody buying into that this will help our team. The second one is we’re really struggling defensive rebounding.”

One of the young players that’s had the right mindset in regards to attacking the glass is rookie guard R.J. Hampton, who’s pulled down seven-plus boards in each of Orlando’s last three games. Over that span, the explosive combo guard is averaging 17.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game.

“When he has space, you can see he has exceptional instincts,” Clifford explained. “He can drive the ball to either hand, he can change directions, he has very good body control, he has size, (and) he has the ability to finish around the basket with either hand.”

The next six games provide invaluable experience for young players like Hampton, who are still trying mold their raw abilities, pick up on the nuances of the league, and develop the mentality of being a two-way player.

“He can pass off the dribble, which is – for perimeter players today – one of the things that you look for because it shows, again, that he has natural instincts,” Clifford continued. “He doesn’t take the extra dribble. When he’s driving the ball and he sees an open teammate he has the ability, he just moves it, whereas a lot of guys can’t do that. They don’t see it quick enough and they’re not as skilled with the ball. Those are things he can build on.”

QUOTE TO NOTE: “It’s dope. I’m super excited. I’m glad that I got one game out of the way before getting there because sitting at home, it’s kind of hard to hop right back in rhythm. So, I’m glad I got the dust off a little bit, kind of got my feet wet a little bit before coming home to play. It’s just dope to have my friends and my family coming to watch me play, knowing that just last week they were watching me work out and helping me rebound. We were sitting in the house having conversations about when we get back, we’re going to do this or when we get back, we’re not going to be in the position anymore. To have my guys there, my family there, who supported me through the grind, I enjoy it.” – Sindarius Thornwell, who recently signed a two-way contract with the Magic, on getting to play near his hometown of Lancaster, South Carolina in just his second game with the team.

INJURY UPDATE: For Orlando, Wendell Carter Jr. (left eye abrasion), Michael Carter-Williams (sprained left ankle), James Ennis III (sore right calf), Markelle Fultz (torn ACL, left knee), Jonathan Isaac (left knee rehabilitation), Chuma Okeke (sprained left ankle), Otto Porter Jr. (left foot pain), and Terrence Ross (back spasms) are out.

For Charlotte, Miles Bridges (health and safety protocols), Devonte’ Graham (right knee discomfort), Gordon Hayward (right foot sprain), and Cody Martin (left ankle sprain) all missed Thursday’s contest against the Chicago Bulls.

KEY STAT: With the reported addition of Admiral Schofield, the Magic could make NBA history in the coming days. Over the course of this season, Orlando has had 28 different players appear in at least one game. That matches a league record set by the Memphis Grizzlies, who've had 28 players take the court in a single season twice, both in 2015-16 and 2018-19. Should Schofield take the floor for the Magic, they’ll have the record all to themselves, a symbol of just how hard injuries have plagued the team this season as well as the number of players involved in their trade deadline transactions.

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: “Over the course of the season, what have you seen from LaMelo Ball and what’s impressed you about the rookie?”

Perley: “He’s been tremendous. It was a big blow when he got hurt in Los Angeles back in March. First thing you think when you hear fractured wrist on his shooting hand is obviously the worst. But he recovered very, very quickly and has come back. He just does everything. On the court, the scoring has been tremendous. He’s been great at driving to the rim and finishing at the rim. His jump shot – I think he’s shooting thirty-seven percent from three – everything that he does is a little bit better than what we’d thought it would be. His in-traffic rebounding is tremendous; the way he can push the tempo and pace off of rebounds. He’s averaging six or seven rebounds per game and is among the rookie leaders in rebounding. Obviously, the passing has been tremendous. His vision, anticipation, his intelligence, (and) the way he’s able to read plays is just off the charts. He’s really, really just gifted. He’s got great defensive anticipation too in terms of timing steals and intercepting passes. He doesn’t give up on plays. He’s just been a complete marvel (and) a total package. He’s absolutely everything the organization wanted and envisioned when they were drafting him.”

Savage: “The Hornets are fighting for playoff positioning and are currently the eighth seed, which puts them in the NBA Play-In Tournament. What’s the biggest key for this group over the next six games to hold on to that spot or perhaps even improve their position?”

Perley: “I think it’s two things. One is – and not that it’s not happening now, but like when we won in Detroit the other night – having a lot of guys step up in games. Caleb Martin stepped up with a season high. Brad Wanamaker had a season high. Jalen McDaniels had a double-double. It’s getting those performances from the backend of the roster to fill in the gaps, especially with not having Gordon Hayward, not having Miles Bridges, and Devonte’ Graham missing a couple games and Cody Martin being out for a few games with a sprained ankle. So, you have to get more of those guys. You’ve got LaMelo, Terry (Rozier), PJ Washington, those guys have been playing really well. But it’s getting those backend guys, five through nine guys in the rotation, to fill in the gaps. The second thing is just bringing a physicality to games. We play a lot of small ball right now. We’ve been playing a small-ball lineup right now and have had some problems against some teams that are a little bit bigger like Chicago and Miami the other day. Just not backing down from teams that have a size advantage needs to be key during this final six games, especially with (the Hornets) missing some guys right now. So, I would say those two things. Just getting more guys stepping up in the backend of the rotation and then, just physicality every single night.”

Savage: “What is one of the more underrated aspects of this team that either doesn’t get talked about enough nationally or gets overlooked by fans?”

Perley: “That’s a good question. I would say the first thing that comes to my mind, and this has been a very strange year in that we have a guy, who really generating a lot of national attention on his own in LaMelo Ball and that’s what’s really drawing the eyeballs in. But hopefully, when people come to watch LaMelo Ball in a game, they see Miles Bridges play the way he has this year. They see PJ Washington take the steps that he has. Some of the dunks that the Martin twins have had. Terry Rozier is having a huge year and Gordon Hayward, when he was playing, was back to his All-Star caliber form. It’s a fun team to watch, not just one or two guys. All through the roster, this has been a really fun team to watch. They’re very selfless with a lot of passing and sharing the ball. They’ve really supported one another. It’s not one or two stars taking all the shots. It might be one guy has a big night and the next, another guy has a big night. So, esthetically, it’s a fun team to watch because you see they support each other, the play for each other and there’s a lot of sharing. They’re second or third in assist percentage right now. There’s just a really good vibe. It’s a team that’s been through a lot of hardship like everybody – especially Orlando – with the injuries and just the craziness of the season. But they haven’t made excuses. I would say that it’s that they’re a fun team to watch all the way though. I enjoy watching them and I think a lot of other people do too that maybe in years past haven’t necessarily tuned in to watch the Hornets.”


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