Orlando Magic at New Orleans Pelicans: Game Preview

Wendell Carter Jr.
by Dan Savage

ORLANDO -- The new-look Orlando Magic opened a lot of eyes when they went into Los Angeles and stunned the Clippers, who possess the third-best record in the West, with a thrilling comeback victory on Tuesday.

Now, the Magic (16-31) will look to build on that victory as their five-game road trip continues with a Thursday night matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans (21-25) at 8 p.m. ET.

While Orlando dealt a number of franchise staples one week ago at the NBA trade deadline, it’s maintained a key part of its identity. Since infusing the three new members of their squad on Sunday, the Magic have allowed just 96 points to both the Lakers and Clippers, two Western Conference powerhouses.

“We’re not going to be getting to (112 points) now,” Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford said. “We’re going to have to play like this. Defend, low turnover, (and) be smart.”

Due to lack of practice time, trading a number of players who the offense was structured around, and adding four additional pieces – two of whom are under 22 years old – midseason, Orlando’s offense is currently limited. While the Magic have spent much of their minimal practice time – and even during walkthroughs in ballrooms – adding to their offensive sets, the team is going to have to put up staunch defensive efforts to remain competitive in the short term.

“(The Magic’s victory over the Clippers) shows that this team wants to win,” said Wendell Carter Jr., who came up with two key blocks in the final two minutes of that game. “This team understands that the only way to win is to get stops. That’s probably the number one thing in winning in the NBA. We’re all great players, we’re all going to make shots on the offensive end, it’s all about getting stops and gang rebounding. I feel like a lot of my teammates understand that.”

Those areas will once again be of the upmost importance against a Pelicans squad that possesses the seventh-best offensive rating (115.9) in the NBA. They currently lead the league in rebound percentage (53.3) and are top ten in assist to turnover ratio (1.86) and points in the paint (53.4).

All-Star forward Zion Williamson has recorded 20-plus points in 24 straight games, marking the longest streak in NBA history for a player under 21 years old. Since Feb. 3, Williamson is averaging 28.3 points on 65.2 percent shooting from the floor, 38.5 percent from three, 72.5 percent from the charity stripe, while collecting 6.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. Over this span, he’s the only player in the NBA to average at least those collective numbers.

KEY STAT: Chuma Okeke is continuing to produce at both ends of the floor at a torrid pace. The Magic rookie has scored in double figures in four straight games and over that stretch has made 27 of his 43 shot attempts, including going 12-for-19 from distance.

“My confidence is definitely building up,” the Auburn alum explained. “I just have to keep on building from here. I can’t dwell on this game, I can’t dwell on the losses or the wins, I just have to see what I did good, see what I did bad, and just build from there and continue to get better.”

QUOTE TO NOTE: “Wendell is a smart player and he’s also smart off the court too. So, he’s going to pick up things really, really quickly, quicker than most guys. It’s not anything new. The way he moves his feet on defense for his height, it’s amazing. He’s just so quick laterally and he’s got a quick bounce – he can get up and block shots really quickly. You think the dude’s got a layup, and he just comes out of nowhere to block it and gets the rebound. He helps us a lot on that end of the court.” – Okeke on his former AAU teammate and now current Magic teammate, Carter.

INJURY UPDATE: Karim Mane (sore right hamstring) is questionable, while Cole Anthony (non-displaced fracture, right rib), Markelle Fultz (torn ACL, left knee), Gary Harris (strained left adductor), and Jonathan Isaac (left knee rehabilitation) are out.

For the Pelicans, Lonzo Ball (strained right hip flexor) and Williamson (sprained right thumb) are questionable.

RIVALS REPORT: In this edition of our Rivals Report series, we’re joined by Pelicans studio host and radio analyst Daniel Sallerson. Prior to spending the last nine-plus years with New Orleans, Sallerson was a co-worker of mine at the Magic. So, he had no choice but to join me and answer a few questions about the Pelicans.

Savage: “Magic fans might get their first look at Zion Williamson tonight. Where has he made the biggest strides this season?”

Sallerson: “I think his play-making ability. That started earlier in the year when Zion turned into point-forward Zion or point Zion. Just his ability to take the ball up the floor and sort of run point for this team. It’s opened up things for the Pelicans. His assists are up since then. It’s made teams decide what to do whether it’s double team Zion or build a wall inside the paint so he can’t get to it. His passing is very underrated. He’s had some games where he’s had five or six assists per game. I think that’s been his biggest improvement over the course of the season. Of course, finishing at the rim is something he’s always done, but he’s seems to be doing it a lot more effectively in these last twenty-three games where has a streak of shooting over fifty percent from the field while scoring twenty or more points. You’ve seen everything from that standpoint as far as he’s improved in every situation, but his playmaking and his passing is something that you’ve really seen grow over the course of the year.”

Savage: “The Pelicans made a big splash this offseason when they hired former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. Where has he made his biggest imprint on the team thus far?”

Sallerson: “Defensively, lately, is where the impact is starting to happen. This team started off really well defensively and then tapered off during the middle of the season, but it’s improved ever since the All-Star break. I think that’s been the biggest thing for Stan is his defensive principles. He’s changed the Pelicans’ style as far as packing the paint and then trying to rotate and defend the perimeter. It seems like the Pelicans have improved since the middle of the season in that area. The defense has been a top ten defense since the All-Star break and so, that’s where his defensive mindset and principles are really starting to show for this team. That’s one of the reasons they’ve been playing well of late.”

Savage: “If you were the Magic tonight, what are some of the areas you would try and exploit? Where have other teams had success against the Pelicans?”

Sallerson: “It’s definitely been the three-point shooting. Unfortunately, the Pelicans have been bottom of the pack for most of the year as far as three-pointers allowed and also (opposing) three-point percentage. It has gotten better recently, but there’s still a lot of wide-open attempts for the other team. If there’s one thing Orlando can attack, it’s definitely going to be the three-point shooting because, again, the Pelicans main focus is packing the paint and avoiding driving lanes or teams going to the free throw line. Sometimes, they’re willing to take the risk of allowing a three, even though they’re trying to rotate back. That’s been the main struggle this year is three-point defense. That’s something the Magic can attack tonight.”

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