Culture of Hoops

Orlando Magic’s opening week

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After a season that saw them post a record of 20-62, worst since their inaugural season, the Orlando Magic look for a bounce-back season of sorts starting Tuesday night. The Magic, still in the midst of rebuilding the franchise after the Dwight Howard debacle, will undoubtedly find themselves toward the bottom of the standings again this year. The team picks up where they left off—with a tough start to this season, facing five teams hopeful of making the playoffs.

The season kicks off with a difficult road back-to-back against the Indiana Pacers and Minnesota Kevin Loves … er, Timberwolves. The team arrives back home for a matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans, the third time they’ll see the team in the last month, and finish the week up against the new-look, retirement home-ready Brooklyn Nets.

Game 1
Orlando Magic vs. Indiana Pacers. Tuesday, October 29th, 7 PM.

Storylines:

Both teams will be without two key wing players: Tobias Harris (ankle) for the Magic and Danny Granger (calf) for the Pacers. While Indiana played the majority of last season without Granger, having his services in a mere five games, the Magic were not faced with the same situation last year after Harris’ arrival from the Milwaukee Bucks. Harris showed he’s capable of filling up the stat sheet, averaging 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 27 games last season. Neither player has a set timetable, but their returns to the lineup will surely help their respective teams.

What can the Pacers expect out of Paul George this year? He had a breakout year last season, posting 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game. George was also selected to his first All-Star team, voted as the league’s Most Improved Player, and made the All-NBA third team and All-Defensive second team. He was rewarded with a big contract extension in the offseason and is one of the spearheads to the tough, gritty Pacers defense that ranked second in opponent points per game (90.7) and first in defensive efficiency, at 96.6 points per 100 possessions. His jump shot is somewhat inconsistent, but George could take the next step as a dominant player in the league by improving it.

How will Victor Oladipo’s transition to point guard go for the Magic? He’s shown the ability to be a solid ball handler and distributor at times throughout the preseason, but he’s also had his fair share of struggles. The ceiling is high for the high-energy, athletic guard from Indiana, but how high is it at a new position? He’s tenacious on both ends of the court and won’t back down from anyone. Putting it all together seems to be the next step for Oladipo early in his career, from finding consistent ways to score efficiently, to being able to distribute the ball, take care of it, and keep his defensive energy high every night.

Matchup to watch:
Roy Hibbert vs. Nikola Vucevic

The matchup at center is an interesting one. Hibbert, one of the best defensive anchors in the league, will have his work cut out against the third-year Vucevic. The Magic center put up 12.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per game in three matchups with Hibbert last year, which were just under his season averages of 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds. Hibbert fared much less favorably in the three games, putting up 10 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. Vucevic’s ability to space the floor could help draw Hibbert away from the basket more, allowing the Magic wider and easier driving lanes for attempts at the rim. Hibbert isn’t a major threat offensively, never averaging more than 12.8 points per game, but can’t be slept on by Vucevic. They won’t bang in the post too much, but the defensive prowess of Hibbert against the rebounding, jump-shooting machine of Vucevic is an interesting one for opening night.

What the Magic must do to win:

Take care of the ball. The Magic were tied for 16th in the league last year at 14 turnovers per game, but they struggled to take care of the ball in the preseason, averaging 20.1 turnovers per game in the eight exhibition matches. Even though the Pacers forced only 13 turnovers a game last year, their tenacity on defense could bump that up some this season.

Get Oladipo going in a comfortable role. He’ll most likely come off the bench, but he could see starter’s minutes. He’s going against a good defender in George Hill, so how he uses his speed and size to score will be interesting to see. He’s able to score in multiple ways, and if he gets hot it’s possible a matchup with Lance Stephenson or Paul George could ensue.

Game 2
Orlando Magic vs. Minnesota Timberwolves. Wednesday, October 30th, 8 PM.

Story lines:

Can the Magic improve on their woeful record in back-to-backs last year? In the second half of back-to-backs in 2012-13, the Magic posted a 3-9 record, including a loss in Minnesota. It’s the second year in a row the Magic go to Minnesota early in the season on the back end of a back-to-back. How much energy will they carry over? Will not playing a back-to-back in the preseason hurt them at all?

Will the Magic be able to contain Kevin Love on the boards? One of the best rebounders in the game could have a favorable matchup come Wednesday night. The Magic’s power forward options—Andrew Nicholson, Kyle O’Quinn and Jason Maxiell—had rebounding percentages of 11.7, 18.5 and 13.2, respectively. Love, in only 18 games last year, had a 23.3 rebounding percentage and for his career sports a 21.5 percentage. He’s going to have some competition with Nikola Vucevic, but how can the Magic power forwards slow him down?

What kind of production can Minnesota expect from their small forward position? The team rewarded Chase Budinger with a three-year, $15 million dollar deal in the offseason to start at the 3 for the team. Well, Budinger is out yet again, and the team’s depth is being shown early. No starter has officially been named, but the team has options. How can they make up for the loss of production from Budinger? How will his absence hurt their bench in the early part of the season?

Matchup to watch:
Kevin Love vs. Magic power forwards

The aforementioned containment of Kevin Love is possibly the most interesting matchup. Love’s ability to go down low and score or step out and spread the floor make him a matchup nightmare. Andrew Nicholson is still learning on the defensive end, Kyle O’Quinn is phsyical, but commits a lot of fouls. Jason Maxiell, while arguably the Magic’s best defender at the position, creates problems with his poor offensive game. Love is undoubtedly poised for a big year. If he’s able to stay healthy, it could start on Wednesday against the Magic’s front line.

What the Magic must do to win:

Contain Kevin Love. Notice a trend? As Kevin Love goes, the Timberwolves go. Yes, the offseason additions of Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer will help, and the continued growth from Ricky Rubio will also help the sixth-year forward from UCLA, but how much will they help?

Have something left in the tank after what will almost certainly be a hard-fought game Tuesday night. It’s early in the season, so the tanks are full, but what will a back-to-back to do? Can they keep any momentum they might carry from Game 1 to Game 2?

Game 3
New Orleans Pelicans vs. Orlando Magic. Friday, November 1st, 7 PM.

Story lines:

This has nothing to do with the game itself, but the Magic will honor Tracy McGrady during the game. The high-scoring guard’s time in Orlando can be described as … interesting. He was arguably the best player in the league then, but never had the sufficient help to push the team past the first round of the playoffs. He’s said some choice things about his time in Orlando recently, but as the 25th year of Magic Basketball begins, honoring one of the franchise’s all-time greats is appropriate.

As for the game: It’s the third time the two teams will be facing off against each other in a month, and the second in a week. The Pelicans have the youngest team in the league, with some of the most exciting young players, including former No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis. The Magic also come in sporting a relatively young team, with eight of the 15 players being 24 years or younger, and 11 of 15 being under 30. The Pelicans took both preseason matchups, one a nail-biter to open the exhibition schedule, the second a dominating 19-point victory to close out the warmups.

How will the possible lineup of Jrue Holiday-Eric Gordon-Tyreke Evans work for New Orleans? Luckily for the Pelicans, Evans can step up and play the small forward spot, which is where he’ll likely see most of his playing time. All three can handle the ball to some extent, with Holiday and Evans being the primary two. Gordon, who’s struggled with knee injuries since coming into the league, would mostly be used as a shooting option. So, how can the Magic match-up with this? Could they use a Victor Oladipo-Arron Afflalo-Maurice Harkless combo at some point? Maybe even Jameer Nelson? They struggled giving up wide open three attempts in the second preseason matchup, so how can they limit wide open shot attempts from the perimeter while still guarding Anthony Davis down low?

Matchup to watch:
Jrue Holiday vs. Jameer Nelson/Victor Oladipo

Unless something crazy happens and Nelson is hurt or traded before Friday, he’ll be starting at point for the team, with Oladipo backing him up. How can the undersized Nelson keep the bigger, physical Holiday in check? The tandem held him to 9 points, 9 assists and 5 rebounds in their first preseason matchup. The second time around, a game Nelson sat out, Holiday only put up 9 points and 3 dimes in 15 minutes. Holiday and Oladipo went at each other on both ends, which could make for one of the better matchups early in the year for the two young guards.

What the Magic must do to win:

Contain the Pelicans shooters. New Orleans shot 53.8 and 61.1 percent from three in the two preseason matchups. Contesting all the Pelicans looks, wide open or with a defender draped over them, is big for the Magic, who were one of the worst defensive teams last season.

Get to the free-throw line. The Magic were historically bad at getting to the charity stripe last year, averaging 16.6 attempts per game. The addition of Victor Oladipo could help, with his willingness to take contact and try to score any way possible. They averaged 21.3 attempts in the preseason, which is a step in the right direction, but still had games where they struggled getting there. The offense shouldn’t be too strapped to score points this year, so getting to the line and converting opportunities will just open up more chances at wins.

Game 4
Brooklyn Nets vs. Orlando Magic. Sunday, Nov 3rd, 6 PM.

Story lines:

Goodness, this Nets team is old. Like, half the roster is a few years away from collecting Social Security old. All joking aside, the Nets could be very good this year. How much do Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry have left in the tank? How wide is their window to “win now”? Can they take down the Heat in the East? How about head coach Jason Kidd? You know, he was playing last season. How will the team buy into him going into this year?

As for the game … will Tobias Harris be back? There’s no timetable for his return. The team obviously won’t rush him back because he’s a key part of the future. Why risk serious injury?

Could the Magic get an early, quality, signature win against the veteran-heavy Nets? Of course they could, but the odds of that happening are like the odds I get a date with Kate Upton, or the Cubs win a World Series in the next ten years. So, not very good. The Nets dismantled the Magic in all three meetings last year, winning by 39, 8, 12 and 20 in four meetings, and the Nets are better this year. It could get ugly early.

Matchup to watch:
Brook Lopez vs. Nikola Vucevic

Who plays defense first in this matchup? To be fair, they’re young centers that can play, but defense is a struggle for both. They’ve both got pretty good offensive games and are able to score in multiple ways. Vucevic has a clear advantage on the boards; Lopez in scoring. They’ll go back and forth, but sooner or later one will get a stop, right?

What the Magic must do to win:

Not get torched by Deron Williams. Easier said than done, yes. Possible? Sure. Probable? Your guess is a good as mine. He only played in one preseason game, but took advantage of his time on court, knocking down four of five shots, including three in a row from deep in just 10 minutes. He had some success last year against the Magic, putting up 15 points and 6.7 assists in four wins.

Contain Brook Lopez. Sure, Lopez may have averaged 16.6 points per game last year against the Magic, nearly three under his season average, but he’s still able to light it up any night. As outlined in the matchup to watch above, neither Lopez nor Magic center Nikola Vucevic play a lot of defense. With less pressure on him after the additions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, Lopez could be in for a big game and season.

The Magic’s season starts just like last season ended: brutally. They played one non-playoff team in April and then this to open this season. The scheduling gods just aren’t on their side early, but it’ll get better … right?

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