Despite sloppy and, at times, extremely ugly play, the Orlando Magic were able to grab an elusive victory on Saturday night. Playing on the second night of a back-to-back, Orlando was able to find the gas at the bottom of the tank to motor their way to a 100-92 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
From the start, it was unclear which team truly had an advantage. Minnesota came in after a grueling double-overtime victory versus the Miami Heat on Friday night, a game in which, despite the win, they were officially eliminated from playoff contention. Even though they were short-handed, with the likes of Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin and Shabazz Muhammed all out, and losing Chase Budinger early to an ankle sprain, the Timberwolves fought and kept themselves in the game, thanks in large part to forcing Magic turnovers and converting them into points.
Much of the first half, the two teams traded mini-runs. Orlando would push their lead up to five, Minnesota would answer and push their lead up to three or four, then Orlando would answer and grab the lead themselves. With neither team proving able to pull away, it was clear that everyone in attendance would be in for a good game. At the half, Minnesota found themselves up two, 48-46.
Much of the visiting Timberwolves’ success in the opening half can be attributed to their tenacity on the defensive end. Minnesota was able to force the Magic into 12 turnovers, turning into 16 points, compared to only four turnovers forced and two points for the hosting Magic. Minnesota also held a sizable lead in free-throw attempts and makes, converting 10 more than Orlando, while taking 14 more.
In the second half, the Timberwolves and point guard Ricky Rubio looked to pull away. Thanks to stellar play from Rubio on the offensive end, not only setting his teammates up, but scoring as well, Minnesota was able to push their lead to a game-high 13 points. However, much like the first half, the Magic answered, clawing their way back into it, trailing by only five going into the final quarter.
In the fourth, everything changed for the Magic. Head coach Jacque Vaughn summed it up when he was asked about his team cutting down on turnovers and fouls in the second half, “That was exactly it; clean up the free throws. We talked about it at halftime, them going to the free throw line, being able to guard without fouling, being in the right position, being disciplined in every play whether it was even on shot fakes. Hopefully, we learned from Al Jefferson and then even (Gorgui) Dieng got us tonight a few times on pump fakes. I think just overall we got a little bit more disciplined in the second half and especially in the fourth quarter, defensively, we were pretty good.”
In the final period of action, Orlando was the aggressor, but was able to limit not only their fouls and Minnesota’s trips to the free-throw line, but also their turnovers. Kyle O’Quinn summed it up after the game saying, “Especially going into the fourth quarter, we stopped fouling, wanted to play solid defense because we didn’t want to get into a free-throw competition and the calls were going their way a little bit because of our ticky-tack fouls, so, wanted to stop that.” The Magic used a unit that was spearheaded by Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo and O’Quinn to do so, stifling Minnesota defensively and getting whatever they wanted on the offensive end.
Both Harris and Oladipo were asked about the second-half turnaround after the game, here’s what each had to say:
Harris: “I think most importantly our energy and making plays and momentum was going our way and the crowd was getting excited. It’s energy, it takes it out of the other team and I think that happened tonight.”
Oladipo: “I was more aggressive (in the second half). Honestly, I think that’s the thing, I was more aggressive. I played with a lot more confidence. We did a good job of distributing the ball today. We did a great job of defending and rebounding and that’s why we came out with a victory.”
The trio of Oladipo, Harris and O’Quinn combined for 21 of the team’s final 28 points, and 47 total for the game. Harris led the group with 17, followed closely by Oladipo with 16 and O’Quinn with 14. Arron Afflalo joined the Magic’s young trio in double figures, finishing with 18 points. Maurice Harkless was the final Magic man to finish in double figures, scoring an efficient 17 points on the night.
The short-handed Timberwolves got contributions from many on Saturday night. The aforementioned Rubio finished with a team-high 18 points, while slashing forward Corey Brewer contributed 15. Robbie Hummel, one of the league’s best stories, along with Dieng and Dante Cunningham, scored 12 apiece. Rounding out the bunch that finished in double figures was versatile forward Luc Mbah a Moute, who finished with 10 points.
Without center Nik Vucevic, who missed his second consecutive game with a sore left achillies, Orlando did a good job on the boards, out-rebounding Minnesota by 10, 40-30 on the night. They were also able to move the ball exceptionally well, finishing with 29 assists on 43 made field goals, thanks in large part to point guard Jameer Nelson’s 12 assists night.
Orlando will look to keep the momentum going on Wednesday night when the playoff-bound Brooklyn Nets come to town. Minnesota on the other hand will return home to face the West’s best team, the San Antonio Spurs, which is a makeup game after the two were unable to play in Mexico City earlier in the season due to smoke in the arena.