Orlando Magic at Minnesota Timberwolves: Game Preview

Evan Fournier
by Dan Savage

ORLANDO -- The Orlando Magic are caught in the middle of a six-game losing streak but are still maintaining a level of positivity. Despite their struggles, they’re still right in the mix of the Eastern Conference playoff race and in a position to capitalize on their initial strong start to the season.

The Magic (6-8) will look to get back on the winning tack when they continue their road trip against the Minnesota Timberwolves (3-9) on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.

“We’re six-and-eight, and if the season ended today, we’d be tied for ninth (place in the Eastern Conference) and we’re a half of a game out of fifth,” Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford said. “We have everything to play for. But the biggest factor is figuring out a way to sustain consistent play at both ends of the floor and on the glass.”

The good news for Orlando is help is finally on the way. Evan Fournier, who’s missed the last nine games due to back spasms, is active and will play for the Magic tonight.

Orlando’s offense which has been erratic at best since the season-ending ACL injury to Markelle Fultz can undoubtably use the shooting, scoring, and spacing created by the French swingman. Fournier was averaging 14.8 points per game while shooting 51.1 percent from the floor prior to his injury.

“He gives us a place to go offensively,” Clifford said. “He’s a very good catch-and-shoot player, he’s a good pick-and-roll player, and he’s a versatile defender. When you lose a guy like him, there’s a lot of parts of it. It’s not just a guy that you lose, it what happens to your bench and your depth.”

The Magic hope that his return will help generate a better start to games for a team that’s struggled out of the gate in their recent stretch.

“We just have to be ready when the game starts, our energy, our focus, our will,” Magic forward James Ennis III said. “Sometimes shots are not going to go in, but we still have to fight on the defensive end. If we get stops, we can get out and run, get easy layups, and just make easy plays.”

Along with an increased intensity, the Magic will look to recapture their brand of ball movement that often leads to their best version of offense.

“We’re more dominant when we share the ball and we share the game,” Ennis said. “When we draw two and kick it, and (find) the open guy, it’s very contagious to keep passing to the open guy, keep moving without the ball. I feel like we’re more dominant when we go into (Nikola Vucevic) and (Aaron Gordon) in the post. That’s when we’re most effective (when we’re) playing off of them.”

QUOTE TO NOTE: “A lot of people don’t understand, he’s really underrated defensively. … If you want film every day, the way he closes out, how competitive he is on that side of the ball. I think it’s a really underrated trait of Aaron Gordon right now. He guards the best player on the opposite team, and he carries the load for a lot of us on offense. Aaron Gordon is really underrated.” – Birch on A.G.’s defense this season.

INJURY UPDATE: Al-Farouq Aminu (right knee rehabilitation) and Michael Carter-Williams (sprained left foot) are making progress. Although neither will play against the Wolves, they both participated in the non-contact portions of practice on Tuesday. How far they’re off from returning still remains unclear. Fultz (torn ACL, left knee), Chuma Okeke (left knee bone bruise) and Jonathan Isaac (left knee rehabilitation) are all out. Mo Bamba (non-team contact tracing) did not travel with the team and will not play against Minnesota.

For the Wolves, Josh Okogie (left hamstring strain) is listed as probable, while Juancho Hernangómez, Ricky Rubio and Karl-Anthony Towns are all out due to health and safety protocols.

KEY STAT: It’s no secret that Nikola Vucevic is having a dominant start to the season. The Magic’s center is averaging 22.9 points and 11 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor and 42.5 percent from 3-point range. But just how good in comparison to the rest of the league’s elite players has Vooch been? According to NBA Math, he’s up there with the best of the best.

Vucevic’s 89.54 TPA this season is second best among all players in the league this season, trailing only Nikola Jokic. What is TPA exactly? It takes into account defensive and offensive effectiveness on a per-possession basis while also incorporating the amount of playing time the contributor in question receives.

RIVALS REPORT: In this edition of our Rivals Report series, I brought in special guest, Jace Frederick, who’s been the Timberwolves reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press since 2015. He was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions prior to the matchup.

Savage: “What have you seen out of rookie Anthony Edwards so far this season?”

Frederick: “It’s been kind of a mixed bag, which I think might be what you would expect, especially for a guy as young as Anthony, who should be a freshman in college right now. Not having an extended training camp, not having an extended preseason. He was really good, really early. He did a nice job. He’s flashed a lot of playmaking, which I don’t know if we all expected necessarily, along with some shot making. Shot selection has been a little bit of a problem at times. Honestly, his minute load has gone up and down with the Timberwolves roster consistently changing because of injuries and Towns being in and out of the lineup. Edwards last game he played thirty minutes. Other games he might play twenty minutes. Whether or not he’s playing in the fourth quarter and been closing games has been inconsistent. I think that makes life a little tougher on a rookie. In general, you see a lot of good flashes, you see the talent that made him the number one overall pick. It’s just that as he starts to figure things out, will it come a little bit more consistently? On the defensive end of the floor, it certainly needs to be better, but I don’t think that’s a surprise either. But a lot of good things and I think generally a lot of people have positive takeaways from what they’ve seen from Edwards so far. You see the base, you see the foundation, and with his work ethic, you kind of expect that the strides will come as the season goes along.”

Savage: “In his first full season with the Timberwolves, what are you seeing from D’Angelo Russell? Obviously, you’d like to see him with Towns, but what has he shown you so far?”

Frederick: “He was one of those guys – and there were a lot of them in the league – who got off to a slow start to the season, especially offensively, looking for his rhythm. But he’s found it since then. He’s making a lot of shots and he’s controlling the offense. Him and Malik Beasley have been the two guys who have carried almost the entire offensive load. You’d like to see a little bit more on the defensive end as he continues to grow there, but you know that’s not his strength and probably never will be. But he does have the length to at least become a disruptor and help out on that end a little bit more. He had four steals against Atlanta and that was a positive. He definitely is a guy who you look at the pick-and-roll game with him and Towns and I still think that can be a very dangerous combination for Minnesota on the offensive end. But we haven’t had much of a chance to see that. Overall, I think offensively that’s going to be a really good duo moving forward here. The question always is with those two on the floor, is there going to be enough defense in order for Minnesota to get stops? Towns has shown that he’s growing in that area on that end of the floor. Now, will Russell be able to do the same thing? But offensively, I think you see he’s such a dangerous scorer. He can shoot from anywhere on the floor. He’s one of those guys when he takes shots you go, ‘no, no, no, yes!’ as it goes through the hoop. I’ve come to realize that there’s no such thing as a bad shot for him. Right now, without Towns, the balance is getting his own offense, because they absolutely need that, but also getting these role players – who maybe are not conditioned to scoring – getting them some easy looks to get them going so that there’s enough offensive balance to win games.”

Savage: “For Magic fans who may not have watched too many Timberwolves games this season, what are some of the strengths and weaknesses of this team, particularly with the players that will be on the floor tonight?”

Frederick: “As you can probably guess for a three-and-nine team, there are not a whole ton of strengths right now. (laughter) One thing though, Malik Beasley, who the Timberwolves traded for at the deadline last year and re-signed this offseason, he’s been a really strong player for this team. He’s proven on the court his value and that he’s worth his contract that he signed. He’s an improving defensive player, but just the effort that he plays with, his motor. He has the ability to knock down shots and really score from all three levels at the offensive end. He can rebound the ball too. He’s active, he’s all over, (and) he’s the one guy one the Timberwolves’ roster that you can say ‘this guy just brings it.’ He’s impressed really on a nightly basis. He’s been one of the major positives for the Timberwolves this year. Otherwise, you really have a lot of young guys who are trying to find their way. Jarrett Culver, their first-round pick last year, is one of those guys. You’ve got Naz Reid, who was a pleasant surprise as a rookie a year ago and is trying to figure things out on the defensive end of the floor. Josh Okogie is probably this team’s best defender and can really defend one through four, so it’ll be interesting to see who he matches up with tonight. But on the offensive end, again, can be a contributor and can he make smart decisions on that end of the floor? So, it’s a lot of guys who maybe have shown flashes on one end of the court but are trying to find their way on the other end. It’s definitely a case of a young team trying to find its way, but there are bright spots certainly throughout. You can see how it could become a successful team down the road, but it’s certainly not there yet.”

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