Orlando Magic Roll Past Houston Rockets

D.J. Augustin
by John Denton

HOUSTON – In the NBA – maybe more so than anywhere else in professional sports – size still matters. If that was ever in question, the Orlando Magic flexed their considerable muscles and major size advantage on Sunday and proved it time and again against the Houston Rockets and their unconventional small-ball style of play.

In what will likely go down as one of their most impressive victories of the season, the Magic dominated the paint throughout, controlled the glass on both ends of the floor and impressively rolled to a 126-106 annihilation of James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Rockets on Sunday night.

Orlando (29-35) led by 10 after one period, by 25 at the half and by a somewhat stunning 32 points early in the fourth quarter against Houston (39-24). In addition to getting big nights from point guard D.J. Augustin (24 points and four 3-pointers), Aaron Gordon (19 points and 10 rebounds) and Nikola Vucevic (16 points and 16 rebounds), the Magic held a 49-38 rebounding advantage and a 22-8 edge in second-chance points. Orlando used its towering front line to grab a 22-0 advantage in second-chance points in the first half against a Houston team that recently traded away center Clint Capela and doesn’t start a player taller than 6-foot-8.

``We wanted to take advantage of our size on the inside. It’s a different look when you play against a team that plays small-ball like they do with no center, so I felt like myself and (Gordon) could get inside and take advantage,’’ said the 7-foot Vucevic, who remarkably was checked at times by the 6-foot-5 Harden. ``Also, Markelle (Fultz) was able to get to the rim, Mike (Carter-Williams), D.J. and everybody was able to get to the rim and score points. And on the offensive glass, we were able to take advantage by crashing.’’

The victory, Orlando’s first in Houston since 2011, was Magic’s second in a row following a brief three-game skid last week. The Magic improved to 5-26 against teams with winning records and 24-2 when they lead after three periods. Also, there’s this of significance for the Magic: They are 10-0 this season when scoring at least 120 points.

``That’s where we had our advantage and we knew that they didn’t have any shot-blockers, so we were just getting to the rack, playing inside out, posting (Vucevic), posting myself and making the right play,’’ said Gordon, who also did a solid job of staying in front of Westbrook defensively. ``I think we executed pretty well, and we were able to stop their two superstars. We did a pretty good job of that, too.’’

Westbrook finished with 24 points in 30 minutes, but he made only nine of 19 shots and just two of five 3-pointers. Harden, who battered the Magic in December for 54 points and 10 3-pointers, had 23 points – 12 below his season average – after making only six of 19 shots and just three of 10 3-point tries.

``I thought we were more balanced – the guys who guarded their two great players did a good job, they didn’t make a lot of mistakes, our team defense was better and we’re playing better and better offensively,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``We’re getting the ball going more toward the paint, we’re playing with more pace and we’re getting more quality shots.’’

The Magic shot 48.4 percent from the floor while also drilling 13 of 29 3-point shots. Carter-Williams (16 points) and Terrence Ross (16 points and four 3-pointers) continued to play well off the bench and the Magic improved to 14-7 when they put at least six players in double figures.

Fultz, who was questionable to play because of tightness in his right calf, finished with 18 points, five assists and two 3-pointers in 27 minutes.
Wes Iwundu, a Houston native playing in front of 20 family and friends, got the Magic off to a stellar start with eight first=quarter points while starting in place of the injured Evan Fournier (sprained right elbow). Augustin, who missed 15 games from the middle of January to the middle of February with ``bone irritation’’ in his left knee, has 41 points in his last two games as he continues to work his way back into rhythm.

``We didn’t worry about what the Rockets did; we just wanted to come out and play our game,’’ Augustin said. ``The starters came out and played great, (Vucevic) dominated down low and they couldn’t stay with us on the post or with the rebounding situation. So, it was a good game for us.’’

Houston shot 44.3 percent from the floor and it hit only nine of 32 3-pointers.

Sunday’s game saw the return of Clifford, who was forced to leave Friday’s win in Minnesota because of dizziness brought on by dehydration. Clifford, who was treated both at the Target Center and a local Minneapolis hospital on Friday night, was eventually cleared by doctors and was back at practice with the team on Saturday.

The game was a complete role reversal from Dec. 13 when the Rockets rolled to a 130-107 defeat of the Magic at the Amway Center by drilling 22 3-pointers. That night, Harden almost single-handedly broke the will of the Magic with his 54 points on 10 threes. This time around, some of Harden’s offensive energy was expended while trying to cover the 7-foot Vucevic in the post.

``I was a little surprised because I was expecting to have (6-foot-5 forward P.J.) Tucker on me, but it was hard,’’ Vucevic said through a laugh. ``I imagine they did that so that if there was any screen action so that they could switch. Obviously, it’s not something you see every day, but it’s just the way (the Rockets) play and we had to figure it out.’’

Orlando was playing the third game of its four-game, eight-night road trip, while Houston was playing on the second night of a back-to-back set of games. The Magic lost in Miami on Wednesday, but they rebounded on Friday to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 132-118.

Houston, which has struggled of late in its new small-ball lineups, fell behind 20-0 in Charlotte on Saturday, never led once and lost 108-99. After seeing Orlando end a seven-game losing streak in Houston, the Rockets have dropped four games in a row.

The Magic will wrap up their road trip on Tuesday when they face electrifying rookie guard Ja Morant and the surprising Grizzlies in Memphis. Orlando is just 3-15 all-time in Memphis. Orlando is hopeful that it can wrap up its trip at 3-1 – which would be quite the accomplished after starting it with a heart-breaking three-point loss in Miami.

``That would be really big for us and it would give us some momentum to take back home,’’ said Magic reserve center Mo Bamba, whose five points and five rebounds – three of which came on the offensive glass all came in the first half. ``It would be big to win this last one and get that momentum going.’’

Up 71-46 after dominating the first 24 minutes of action, the Magic remarkably pushed their lead to 30 points early in the third period on a Vucevic hook shot. Other than one brief run by the Rockets – which was blunted by back-to-back 3-point shots by Fultz – the Magic completely snuffed out any hopes for the Rockets. At the end of three periods, the Magic had a 105-76 lead thanks, in large part, to their 40-25 rebounding advantage and a 48-40 edge in paint points.

Already playing especially well over the first 22 minutes of the night, the Magic got a huge boost from a Houston meltdown late in the second quarter to grab a commanding 71-46 lead by halftime. Jeff Green, Robert Covington and Houston coach Mike D’Antoni were hit with technical fouls late in the final 53 seconds of the second quarter. When Augustin drilled free throws after all three technical fouls it fueled a 13-2 Magic run to close out the first half.

The Magic had a rare five-point trip during one game-turning sequence late in the second quarter. Gordon drilled a shot-clock-beating 3-point shot as he was fouled by Green. When Green was called for a technical, Augustin buried the free throw and them Gordon sank another to cap the five-point swing in favor of Orlando.

The Magic’s tremendous size advantage along the frontline proved highly effective in the first half. Not only did Orlando have a 31-15 rebounding advantage, but it grabbed 13 offensive boards in the opening 24 minutes and used them to build a staggering 22-0 edge in second-chance points in the early going. Vucevic and Bamba, Orlando’s two primary centers, combined to grab six offensive rebounds in the opening half.

Augustin scored 13 first-half points by making four of six shots, with two 3-pointers and three free throws. Gordon (12 points and eight rebounds in the opening half) and Vucevic (10 points and nine rebounds in the first half) used their size and muscle to dominate the paint. Bamba also dominated inside in the early going.

``It was big (to dominate inside) because the last two teams that we’ve played haven’t used any traditional centers and it’s just a matter of us pounding them inside,’’ said the 7-foot Bamba, who put his 7-foot, 10-inch wingspan to good use on Sunday. ``We know that if we can own the offensive glass, that’s big for us. (Clifford) mentioned that we didn’t have to go away from any of our defensive schemes and we could just play our game and keep the ball movement. We did that and we were able to come out successful.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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