Orlando Magic vs. Detroit Pistons: Game Preview

Dwayne Bacon
by Dan Savage

ORLANDO -- The last two weeks of the Orlando Magic’s season are a perfect representation of the up-and-down roller coaster ride of the NBA.

Just about one week ago, the Magic were stepping off a plane from their West Coast trip at 5 a.m. ET pleased with their overall progress, but desperate for wins.

Now, the Magic (13-18) are three games into their four-game homestand and have the opportunity to complete a clean sweep of the schedule when they face the Detroit Pistons (8-23) for the second straight outing on Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET.

“It’s all about finding ways to get better as the year goes on for teams like us,” Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford said. “That’s the whole key (and) our guys understand that.”

Winners of three consecutive contests and four of its last five games, Orlando has made steady progress on the defensive end since starting its West Coast swing. The Magic possess the league’s second-best defensive rating (105.4) over that span and are first in limiting opponent’s second-chance points (9.0) and second in restricting opponent’s points off turnovers (13.0) since Feb 9.

“We’ve been defending,” Magic swingman Dwayne Bacon explained. “That’s all I can say. … When you defend in this league, you win.”

An integral key in turning the corner in the victories department has been the return of a number of players from injury.

Evan Fournier, who’s scored season highs in back-to-back games, Michael Carter-Williams, who’s playing some of the best defense in the NBA, James Ennis III and Al-Farouq Aminu have all returned at various points in that stretch and have made significant impacts to help the Magic win games.

“We have more guys right now, we’re not depleted as we were just a week ago,” Magic backup center Khem Birch explained. “But also, our defense is getting better. One thing we have to fix is our transition (defense), but our half-court defense has been amazing.”

Physicality, transition defense, execution and spacing will once again all be paramount if Orlando hopes to earn another victory over Detroit at Amway Center and its fourth straight win overall.

“We have to fix our mistakes, that’s the biggest thing,” Carter-Williams said. “They got out into transition (on Sunday). We played hard, they play hard every night (and that’s why) they have some big wins over good teams. They don’t quit no matter if they’re down ten, up ten, so we have to match their intensity.”

KEY STATS: The Magic will once again be looking for a big night from Nikola Vucevic, who throttled the Pistons to the tune of 37 points and 11 rebounds.

In the process, Vooch, who had 30 points and a triple-double a game earlier, became the first player in franchise history with back-to-back games with 30-plus points and 10-plus rebounds while also going perfect from the free throw line in both games.

He’s the first Eastern Conference player to do it since LeBron James on April 8-9, 2005.

QUOTES TO NOTE: Speaking of Vooch, he’ll find out if he made the NBA All-Star team tonight as the league will announce the game’s reserves on TNT at 7 p.m. ET. His teammates are hopeful that he’ll make the squad.

“It would mean a lot to us. Not only to the organization, to him, but to us. I want him to be an All-Star probably just as bad as he wants to be an All-Star. It’s a goal of his and any way that any one of us can help is big.” – MCW

“It would mean a lot. I feel like Vooch deserves it. He works so hard. I’ve taken bits and part of his routine because I look up to a guy like that. (He’s) an All-Star. I’ve been here for four years and just seeing him progress from when I came here until now is amazing to me. If I had a pitch, I feel like he’s one of the most underrated players in the NBA and he brings it every night. I don’t think there’s been a night this year where he’s struggled. He basically carries us some nights and he’s always positive. Even when we had a depleted team, he’s always been there for us. I respect him a lot.” – Birch

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 Pistons, Blake Griffin (not with team), Killian Hayes (right hip strain), Jahlil Okafor (left knee surgery), Delon Wright (right adductor strain) are out.

RIVALS REPORT: In this edition of our Rivals Report series, we’re joined by Detroit Pistons beat writer Omari Sankofa II, who covers the team for the Detroit Free Press. He was kind enough to take the time and provide his insight on the Pistons.

Savage: “When Dennis Smith Jr. got the start, it looked like it was going to be his night to shine. However, Saben Lee had a surprising performance in the first meeting between these two teams. What did you see out of Lee and what are the Pistons hoping to see out of him over the course of the season?”

Sankofa: “That was Saben Lee’s best game, I thought, this season. He had appeared in eight games prior to (Sunday) night and had shown some flashes of what he can do. He had a pretty good career at Vanderbilt playing both guard positions and he was one of the best athletes in the entire draft. So when the Pistons took him in the (2020 NBA) draft in the second round, the idea was to make him a two-way guy and you can develop him and down the road he could be a guy that’s one of the key guys on this team. You pretty much hit the nail on the head. It looked like it was going to be Dennis Smith’s night and then Saben Lee checked in, in the first quarter and pretty much took over from there. He scored sixteen of their twenty-two points in the second. He’s got a really quick first step. Not many defenders can really stay in front of him. It seems like he’s starting to figure out that once he gets downhill, he can open up his shooters and he was hitting those passes over and over. Definitely a leap forward for him. I think it can open up some more playing time for him this season. The Pistons have to be mindful of that game limit that two-way players have, but there’s a pretty clear path for him. Especially with Delon Wright and Killian Hayes out right now.”

Savage: “Obviously a lot more is being thrust onto Dennis Smith Jr.’s plate than was initially intended when the team acquired him. What did the Pistons see in him that made him a piece that they wanted to add other than just being part of the exchange and what do they hope to see from him over the rest of the NBA year?"

Sankofa: “Obviously he was a lottery pick back in 2017. I think the Pistons saw an opportunity to add another young guy to this core who could potentially turn into something. He had fallen out of the rotation in New York. They had been going with Elfrid Payton and their rookie, who’s been pretty good this year, Immanuel Quickley. Dennis Smith also had a quad injury at the beginning of this year that I think made it tough for him to make up that ground. The Pistons saw some things in him that they liked. He’s a good athlete. He can be a really good defender. He’s pretty aggressive in getting to the rim. Obviously, there’s no playoff mandate for the Pistons this year. So, it’s a situation where he can come in and show what he can do. It’s the last year of his rookie deal, so the Pistons will have to make a decision this summer: do we keep him, or do we just move on? Obviously, they already have Killian Hayes and Saben Lee already at the point guard position. For him, I think it’s just about getting comfortable. He missed eight days of practice before the draft because he was assigned to the G League bubble and was quarantining. Kind of the same boat as Saben Lee. With two point guards, it’s a situation where he’s going to play because the Pistons have to play him. (Sunday) night wasn’t his best night, but it looked like he was picking up some steam late last week. The Pistons are committed to giving him a shot. (Sunday) night showed there will be some competition and he’s really going to have to work for that spot.”

Savage: “After talking to the team and listening to the Pistons postgame interviews, what are some of the areas that they’re looking to improve on heading into Tuesday night against the Magic?”

Sankofa: “Consistency is a big one. They’ve had some games, especially during this three-game skid that they’re on, where they’re just missing a lot of open three-pointers. Saddiq Bey, who was the Eastern Conference Player of the Week a couple of weeks ago, kind of cooled off. He misses a few open threes that he usually hits. Wayne Ellington had a hot streak a few weeks ago and he’s been kind of cold since then, missing open threes. I think that’s bit them a lot. Broadly, over the course of the season, they’ve also struggled with quarter-to-quarter consistency. Last week, they were up against the Chicago Bulls by twenty-five points in the second quarter and then they ended up losing. Then, they trailed the Memphis Grizzlies by twenty-one in the first quarter the next game and cut it to three in the fourth quarter, but just couldn’t complete the comeback. They’ve had these huge swings. They’re either winning by a lot and it ends up being a close game or they’re down a lot and then they rally. I think the challenge for (head coach) Dwane Casey and the coaching staff is to get that forty-eight-minute consistency down. Which, I think, anytime you have a young team, that’s going to be an issue, but the Pistons have often been better than their record this season. It’s just finishing games. We saw some of that against Orlando. That’s something they’re going to try and fix before (Tuesday’s) game.”

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