Orlando Magic at Houston Rockets: Game Preview

Cole Anthony
by Dan Savage

HOUSTON – The Orlando Magic are fresh off a victory where they played one of their best halves of the season.

Not only did the Magic shoot over 60 percent from the floor against the Nuggets after halftime, but they also limited Denver to two straight 20-point quarters by sitting down and guarding at an elite level, both key factors in Orlando’s 108-103 thrilling comeback home win.

The Magic (5-18) hope that their effort at Amway Center travels as they embark on a five-game road trip that tips off in Houston on Friday when they pay a visit to the Rockets (5-16) at 8 p.m. ET.

“I believe (our success on Wednesday) started with us being able to get to the rim,” said Magic Head Coach Jamahl Mosley. “I think we were twenty-seven-for-thirty-one at the rim. The more pressure you can put on the rim, the better. It opens up those three-point shots, it opens up opportunities. It forces teams to tag. We were able to get out in transition a little bit more. We played with a higher pace. Being able to get those stops is what was big.”

Stopping the Rockets looked a lot easier just four games ago. But a lot can change in the NBA in just one week of action. After winning just one of its first 17 games, Houston is now in the middle of a four-game winning streak.

“Their ability to turn teams over and get out in transition and play with pace. They really get up and down the floor a lot,” said Mosley of what’s led to the Rockets’ success. “Then, they have talented and skilled guys that can really knock down shots and get hot at any given time. They’re playing with a level of confidence within each other right now that they can come out do some very damaging things if they string it together.”

As the 15th head coach in franchise history alluded to, in order to leave Houston with a victory, Orlando will need to limit the Rockets' fast break points and points off turnovers. Since the start of November, the Magic have excelled in both of those areas, limiting opponents to just 9.8 fast break points per game, which ranks third-best in the NBA, and holding them to just 14.2 points off turnovers, second-best in the league over that span.

“They’re a team that plays super hard. They’re young just like us,” said Cole Anthony, who posted team highs in points (24), rebounds (eight) and assists (seven) in his first game back against Denver after missing six straight contests due to a sprained right ankle. “For us, I think this is a game that’s very winnable for us. It’s a really good opportunity for us to get back-to-back wins, which I don’t think we’ve done all season.”

KEY STAT: The Magic’s shooting went from freezing cold to scorching hot against the Nuggets on Wednesday. After knocking down just 27.3 percent of its shots from the field in the first quarter, Orlando connected on 66.7 percent of its attempts in the second, 65 percent in the third, and 61.1 percent in the fourth. Per Sportsradar, that’s the first time the Magic have shot less than 30 percent from the field in the first quarter and then shot 60-plus percent in quarters two through four since the NBA began tracking that data in 1996-97.

The last NBA team to do that prior to Orlando was the Utah Jazz against the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 13, 2017.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “During this time where you really can’t be on the court, take the time to study as much film. And not just that, but especially when we’re playing, watching each one of those games and be super focused on what the team is doing and on when you come back how you can implement yourself into the offensive and defensive schemes.” – Anthony on the advice he’s given rookie Jalen Suggs, who’ll miss an extended period of time with a fractured right thumb. Suggs traveled with the team during their West Coast trip and is sitting in on practices and continuing to watch film with coaches to make the most of his absence.

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

For Houston, Christian Wood (sprained right ankle) is probable, Kevin Porter Jr. (left thigh contusion) is questionable, Usman Garuba (right thigh contusion) and Jalen Green (left hamstring strain) are out.

RIVALS REPORT: In this edition of our Rivals Report series, we’re joined by Rockets courtside reporter and pre/post-game host Cayleigh Griffin. She was kind enough to answer three questions about Houston prior to its matchup with Orlando.

Savage: “After winning just one of their first seventeen games, the Rockets come into this matchup with the Magic on a four-game winning streak. What have been the common threads over the course of that stretch?”

Griffin: “Well, first and foremost, shots have been falling. Over the last three or four games now, the Rockets have knocked down at least thirteen threes, which is huge for them. They’ve had three consecutive games knocking down at least fifteen. So, the shots have started to fall, especially from beyond the arc. That’s something they didn’t have in the ten games prior, where they finished with twelve or less threes in each of those games. So, things are starting to click for them in terms of shooting. And that’s really come from them starting to play a one-big lineup. That’s created a lot more spacing for the group. The ball movement has been really good, and it’s opened up the floor for the guards who are naturally more drive-and-dish type of players, who are looking to create for themselves as well. It’s opened up the floor for someone like Christian Wood, who we’ll wait to see if he’s going to be available to play after spraining his ankle (on Wednesday) in OKC. But he has been really good off of the pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop. This team plays a lot better with space and they started to play with that space as well over the last few games. So, things are starting to come together. Obviously, they are a young group much like the Magic, and are trying to learn the speed of the NBA (and) learn each other for the first time. It’s still early in the season. I think people forget that, but the Rockets are starting to learn each other and how the game opens up for them when they actually move the ball and play with space.”

Savage: “Magic fans will get their first look at one Houston’s prized rookies in Alperen Sengun. What have you seen from him over the start season?”

Griffin: “He’s been really impressive. When it came to the draft, a lot of people said that he could be one of the steals, but he went at sixteen. He was MVP of the Turkish league last season when he was eighteen years old. He’s actually the youngest player on the Rockets. They have four nineteen-year-olds but he’s the youngest of the nineteen-year-olds. His body is really strong and definitely more NBA ready than I think anyone expected. He’s still getting adjusted to the speed of the NBA. It’s obviously a lot different than when he was in Turkey. But he is an incredible passer. That’s going to continue to help this group because we saw him a lot (on Wednesday) actually against OKC play out of the low post. He was kind of dictating the offense when the Rockets didn’t have a point guard on the floor with D.J. Augustin in protocols and Kevin Porter Jr. out. He kind of took on the role of like point-center. So, he has the ability to control the offense with his passing ability. He’s come up with some crazy passes this season that have caught everyone off guard, including some of his teammates. He’s just got a really good vision for the game. What he’s still adjusting to, like I said, is the speed. On the defensive side, he seems to be just a little bit of a step late when it comes to things defensively. But that will obviously come as he continues to grow in the league. He’s averaging over eight points per game, over five rebounds per game in around eighteen minutes. He’s shooting almost fifty percent from the floor. He’s just a smart player with a really high basketball IQ. For him, it’s just going to be continuing to grow and adjust to the speed of the game. We’re starting to see it come together with the more minutes he gets. Now, with Christian Wood’s injury, we’ll see how long he’s out and if he’s available (on Friday). But Al-P has kind of stepped into the backup five role and he’s really been good so far.”

Savage: “The one rookie that Magic fans won’t get to see on Friday is Jalen Green. Prior to his injury, what stood out about the start of his rookie campaign?”

Griffin: “With Jalen Green there were obviously a lot of high expectations for him coming in as the number two pick in the draft. He looked really impressive in summer league. He was incredible with the G League Ignite last year. For him too, it’s adjusting to the NBA. His body is not as quite NBA ready as Al-P’s body is. He’s got to put some weight on. He’s adjusting to the physicality of the game. In a lot of the early games, the opponents would match up some of their best defenders on him. So, he struggled to kind of get into a rhythm. Then, there were some games where we just saw him catch fire in terms of his shooting. That’s a strong suit for him. He’s got a really bright three-point shot when it’s on.

For him, it’s finding more consistency with his shot. What we did see as well is after a few games of him maybe not knocking down as many shots as he wanted, he started to become more of a creator. And he would take it inside, look to drive, (and) get to the foul line. So, the game started to open up for him a little bit before the injury happened. Kevin Porter Jr. had missed three games due to a thigh contusion that he’s dealing with again now and Jalen had to take over some of those ball-handling duties. So, we saw him as more of a point guard for a little bit, which is not his natural position, but he was able to really do a good job there. So, it’s been nice to see him kind of flex his muscles in different aspects of being a guard in the NBA. We’re still waiting on a timetable for his return with a hamstring strain. I believe he’s going to be reevaluated (on Friday). We should hopefully have an update. He’s anxious to get back as any rookie would be. He wanted to practice the day after the injury, but it’s understanding that it’s a long season. There are eighty-two games. It was only November when this happened. So, he’s got to take his time to make sure he really rests and recovers because they don’t want this injury to be nagging him throughout the rest of the season.”

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