Postgame Report: Magic Fall to Rockets

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Over a three-night stretch earlier this week, the Orlando Magic had the unenviable task of doing battle against superstars Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Anthony Davis and their respective conference-leading teams from Milwaukee and Los Angeles.

However, that daunting gauntlet felt like an easy, breezy walk in the park compared to what superstar and leading MVP candidate James Harden and the hot-shooting Houston Rockets hit the Magic with on Friday at the Amway Center.

Harden, the NBA’s leading scorer at a whopping 39.3 points per game, unleashed a 54-point, 10-3-pointer barrage on the Magic that was so shockingly complete that even the stunned crowd of 16,335 cheered for him when he mercifully checked out of the game midway through the fourth period.

By then, Houston had already locked up what would become a 130-107 victory that left the shell-shocked Magic in amazement of what they had just endured. Not only did Harden make 19 of 31 shots, 10 of 15 3-pointers and all six of his free throws, but he also set up many of Houston’s 22 3-pointers by leading the way with seven assists.

``When a guy has 54 on you, it’s almost like embarrassing because you want to give it your all, but he’s just that great,’’ guard Evan Fournier said of Harden, who tied Stephen Curry (Feb. 25, 2016) and Damian Lillard (Nov. 28, 2018) for the most 3-pointers ever made by an individual player facing the Magic. ``And the fact that he does it every night is really impressive. I think he had 55 (points) last game and this was pretty much the same game. He’s just different and give him credit.’’

How different is the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Harden? There have been 10 50-point performances in the NBA this season and half of them belong to him. Incredibly, he’s topped that 50-point plateau in four of his last seven games and he needed just 36 minutes to do so on Friday.

``It was like a big one-on-one game, he’s good at what he does, and he just had it going tonight,’’ marveled Magic guard Terrence Ross, the owner of one 50-point game in his NBA career.

Said Harden when asked about notching his fifth 50-point game and leading Houston to 10 wins in his 11 games with at least 40 points: ``I just want to win and do whatever it takes.’’

Orlando (11-14) lost for a third straight time with those defeats coming at the hands of the East-leading Bucks, the West-leading Lakers and the West-contending Rockets (17-8). Antetokounmpo muscled his way to 32 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists on Monday, while James (25 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists) and Anthony Davis (16 points, 12 rebounds and six assists) did plenty of damage to the Magic on Wednesday. But nothing quite compared to the efficiency and rapid-fire rate with which Harden pumped in the points all throughout Friday’s game.

``I would say he’s the toughest so far with the way that he’s able to get everybody else involved on top of him having a great shooting night,’’ said Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, who had 10 points, three rebounds and a blocked shot.

The Magic tried Fournier, Isaac, Aaron Gordon and Michael Carter-Williams on the superstar scorer at various times and little to none of it at all worked. Unlike last season, when Magic defenders crowded Harden and mostly made life miserable for him, they struggled to even distract him throughout the flurry of 3-pointers that he poured in from all corners of the Amway Center.

It didn’t make matters any easier for the Magic considering that Houston – owners of four of the five most prolific 3-point shooting games in this NBA season – hit 22 of 39 3-point shots (56.4 percent). Those 22 3-pointers were the most ever made by a Magic opponent, eclipsing the 21 made by Golden State on March 11, 2011. The Rockets made an NBA-best 25 3-pointers earlier this season against Atlanta, and they might have approached that number had the fourth quarter not been so one-sided.

When Harden wasn’t carving up Orlando’s defense, Ben McLemore (18 points and six 3-pointers), Russell Westbrook (23 points, seven rebounds and six assists), P.J. Tucker (12 points, 11 rebounds and three 3-pointers) and Clint Capela (10 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks) also did plenty of damage.

``He was just incredible all night,’’ Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said of Harden’s heroics. ``We just shot the ball extremely well. Ben McLemore shot it and P.J. played great. So, I think it’s just one of those games where the offense is clicking, and it makes it tough on the other team.’’

Added Orlando’s Steve Clifford: ``Tonight, it was just iso (with Harden), which is the hardest thing (to defend). You’ve got a great player in the middle of the floor with more room to cover … and then when he starts making … . It’s just really tough.’’

Fournier scored 20 of his 27 points in the first half when the Magic were within 62-55 by intermission, and he drilled six of 11 3-point shots in the game. Gordon added 21 points, six rebounds, four assists and two more 3-pointers for a Magic team that shot well enough to win on most nights (44 percent from the floor and made 15 of 37 3-point shots). Ross chipped in 13 points and two 3-pointers, while Carter-Williams had 10 points and five rebounds off the bench.

The Magic got within 102-93 of the Rockets with little more than 8 minutes to play before Harden went to work again. This time, he got free for a layup that gave him 40 points. Seconds later, he stole a pass from D.J. Augustin and deftly stopped just before the arc and drilled a 3-pointer that sent the reeling Magic into another time out.

``You know, I feel like we lost against just him tonight,’’ Fournier fumed. ``He’s the MVP (from two seasons ago) for a reason. We talked about it pregame that you have to contest shots and just live with the results, but he did not miss tonight, period. He’s incredible and give him credit.’’

Last season, Orlando rallied to a 116-109 come-from-behind win against Houston by making life difficult for Harden. That night he had 38 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, but he did so after making just 11 of 32 shots and missing 16 of his 17 tries from 3-point range.

``Listen, Evan guarded him in a similar manner to what he did last year and both times we played him last year we defended him well,’’ Clifford said. ``We actually went quicker this year to double him than we did last year. You’ve got to try and keep him off balance. Last year, they were playing more pick-and-roll, but tonight they just (isolated the defender). That’s a different world. In the (isolation play), he’s so good. He’s looking at the guy coming at him (to double team) and he’s got such good feel and vision. It’s just hard.’’

Harden came into Friday just two days removed from a breathtaking 55-point performance in Cleveland with 20 of those points coming in the fourth period. Not only did he make 20 of 34 shots and all five of his free throws, but he buried 10 of 18 threes to rally the Rockets in the fourth period. Harden is now one of four players in NBA history with multiple games with 10 made 3-point shots, doing so three times in his career. The others: Stephen Curry (15), Klay Thompson (five) and J.R. Smith (three).

Orlando was once again without all-star center Nikola Vucevic (right ankle sprain) and key reserve Al-Farouq Aminu (meniscus tear in right knee). The Magic were most hopeful that Vucevic would be back after he had missed the previous 10 games with a lateral sprain in his right ankle. Vucevic went through Thursday’s practice and Friday’s shootaround, but deemed himself not ready to play by game time on Friday. His hope is to make it back by Sunday afternoon’s game in New Orleans.

The 3:30 p.m. ET game is the start of a four-game, seven-night trip that also includes games against the Utah Jazz (Tuesday), Denver Nuggets (Wednesday) and Portland Trail Blazers (Dec. 20). The Magic swept the season series from the Pelicans last season, winning 118-88 last February in New Orleans and 119-96 in Orlando in March.

Down seven at the half, Orlando was mostly defenseless in the third period to stop Harden. He had 13 in the period to help Houston blow out to a 96-78 lead.

In the early going, Harden missed his first 3-pointer and final 3-pointer of the opening half, but he had five makes in between. The final make was a 31-footer off a step-back move that put the Rockets ahead 59-49 and sent a hush over the Amway Center crowd.

It was that kind of deflating night for the Magic because of Harden’s all-around brilliance of Harden.

``That kind of (Houston) team, they make runs, but they allow runs as well. So, of course, we kept believing,’’ Fournier said. ``We never stopped fighting, but at some point when I had that turnover and (Harden) just stops and makes a three, it was just like, `Awwwww, it’s that kind of night.’’’

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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