ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 preview: Orlando Magic

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Last season: The goal was to play the young guys a lot, and by that measure there was some success. Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic each played more than 31 minutes a game, Tobias Harris more than 30 (all when healthy, of course). However, if you judge success by wins, well, it was a rough year as the Magic had just 23 of those with a -5.5 points per 100 possessions net rating (6th worst in the league). The real issue was the offense which put up just 99.3 points per 100 possessions, second worst in the NBA. But since last season was about development, at least there was some of that.

Signature highlight from last season: We could have gone with the Tobias Harris dunk to beat OKC, but if you’re into hope for the future in Orlando, it has to be Victor Oladipo shutting down Damian Lillard on the break (one of a lot of great blocks he had last season).

Offseason moves: The Magic shook up the roster. Gone are veterans Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo (as well as E’Twaun Moore, Doran Lamb and Jason Maxiell), who were the heart of what was the Magic’s offense last season.

Drafted: Aaron Gordon with the No. 4 pick, then they traded with Philadelphia to get point guard Elfrid Payton, the No. 10 pick (they gave Philadelphia No. 12 pick Dario Saric in the deal).

Free agent signings: Two surprises on this front, Channing Frye chose Orlando over other options and Ben Gordon signed for $9 million over two years. Both of those guys are as much trade bait as anything else (especially Gordon at that price). Orlando also added Luke Ridnour as the backup point guard and Evan Fournier can play the two off the bench.

Keys to the Magic season:

Victor Oladipo developing at the two guard. Hopefully the drafting of Payton means the “Oladipo as point guard” experiment is over. It may have been worth a shot (and he can handle a little at the two) but not every experiment works out. This didn’t, so the Magic drafted a pure point guard in Payton (don’t be shocked if Ridnour is the starting point guard opening night but Payton takes the job mid-season). Now Oladipo is at the two and needs to show he can work off the ball, shoot better than 32 percent from three (his number last season), and generally become more of a scorer. As a point guard he seemed to think and hesitate, hopefully a move to his natural position and a year of experience changes that and he just attacks. The question remains what kind of player he can develop into, and I’m on board with the Tony Allen comparisons — a lock down defender who can knock down a three and get you some points. Oladipo could be more than that on offense, but he has work to do on that end to get there.

Where do the points come from? Arron Afflalo isn’t really cut out to be a No. 1 option in the league (he’s a much better fit in the Denver team concept) but he still provided an efficient 18.2 points a night. Jameer Nelson, for all his flaws, knows how to run a team and create scoring opportunities off the pick-and-roll. They’re both gone. The Magic don’t have a go-to scoring option on this roster, and it’s safe to say they are not going to have Spurs-like ball movement to create looks. Ridnour and hopefully Payton can create some looks, Oladipo will be asked to step up, Frye and Fournier can knock down some threes. But once again this team is going to struggle to score.

Defensive improvement must continue. This is the side of the ball that kept Orlando in games last season, it’s clearly a priority in their choosing of players — they can’t let things slide back on the defensive end of the floor. The Magic were already a middle of the pack defensive team last season (18th in points allowed per possession) but by drafting Payton and Gordon they clearly made defense the priority (Gordon in particular has a raw offensive game). While the offense will struggle if the Magic can continue to improve in the defensive end they will be making progress.

Can Jacque Vaughn coach these guys up, can he develop them? When the Magic hired Vaughn as coach it was with the understanding that he was going to lose a lot of games the first few years and there was nothing he could really do about it. This is a player development job, similar to what Brett Brown has in Philadelphia. The question is: Are the players making enough development? We’ll get some good tests this year as we see how Oladipo progresses, plus how Vucevic and Harris do in the year before they become restricted free agents. We’re not going to see a lot of wins in Orlando, but we should really start to see some of the development that the franchise has banked on.

Why you should watch the Magic: This is one very athletic team and they will make some entertaining plays. With Frye and Maurice Harkless and Fournier out there knocking down threes it should open up driving lanes for Harris and Oladipo. Gordon is going to throw down some dunks. Plus the Magic have played hard for Vaughn and that should continue.

Prediction: 29-53 and in the lottery again. Which is kind of the plan, the Magic are on the slow rebuild process and while they do have some real nice young talent on the roster nobody expects it to fully blossom this season. That said there are big questions that need to be answered this season, specifically with Vucevic and Harris as they will be restricted free agents next summer (unless an unlikely extension deal is reached before Halloween) and there’s the question of how much to pay them. Vucevic is going to draw interest from other teams, Orlando has to figure out what he’s worth to them. His play this season impacts his future payday.

This season will be rough in Orlando, the Southeast Division has gotten pretty tough with Washington, Charlotte, Miami and Atlanta all likely playoff teams. The Magic are going to finish last in the division again.

Lakers lock up No. 1 seed in West with win against Jazz

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Anthony Davis had 42 points and 12 rebounds, and the Los Angeles Lakers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs by beating the Utah Jazz 116-108 on Monday night.

The Lakers (51-15) own a six-game lead over the second-place Los Angeles Clippers and have five seeding games let before starting their first playoff run since 2013.

“If you’re winning enough games to secure the No. 1 seed, you’re building the right habits that are going to be necessary for you to win in the playoffs,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Obviously we have bigger aspirations than the No. 1 seed, but we are proud of the accomplishment and we’ll enjoy it while we’re getting ready to get our group ready for the playoffs.”

Utah (42-25) has clinched a playoff berth and is fifth in the West, a half-game behind Houston and a half-game ahead of Oklahoma City.

Davis’ final basket resulted in a 4-point play with 42 seconds left, as he sank a 3-pointer while getting fouled by Rudy Gobert and made the ensuing free throw to give the Lakers a 114-104 lead.

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell answered with a 4-point play of his own that cut the margin to 114-106 with 36 seconds remaining, but the Jazz couldn’t get any closer. Davis made two free throws with 5.2 seconds left to wrap up the scoring.

LeBron James scored 22 points, Dwight Howard had 11 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 10 for the Lakers.

Mitchell scored 33 and Mike Conley had 24 for Utah. Gobert added 16 points and 13 rebounds for the Jazz.

The Lakers were coming off a 107-92 loss to Toronto in which Davis shot just 2 of 7 and scored 14 points. Davis was much more active Monday right from the start, as he scored 13 points and shot 6 of 14 in the first quarter alone.

Davis had 24 points by halftime, marking the 20th time this season he’s scored at least 20 points in a half.

“Coach just told me to be more aggressive,” Davis said. “He felt like, and I felt like too, that I just kind of played into Toronto’s defense, accepted the double-team. I was making the right plays, but I still have to be aggressive at the same time.”

Utah stayed close and only trailed 58-56 at halftime because it got its own stellar start from Mitchell, who scored 21 points in the first two periods.

Mitchell then connected on a 3-pointer to cap an 8-0 run by Utah to open the second half.

But the Jazz got increasingly careless with the basketball as the third quarter progressed, enabling the Lakers to seize control of the game. The Lakers scored 14 straight points and went on a 19-2 run late in the third quarter.

“When they turn the pressure up, we’ve got to be able to execute even better,” Mitchell said. “We turned the ball over way too many times. They did a great job of taking us out of our actions. … We went up six, they turned it up even more and next thing you know, we’re down 12 or whatever.”

Even after Utah’s Emmanuel Mudiay snapped that run by hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer, the Jazz still trailed 86-76 heading into the final period.

The Lakers stayed in front the rest of the way.

Watch Shake Milton drain game-winning three, lift 76ers past Spurs

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How do you like Shake Milton now?

After a rough first game where he exchanged words with Joel Embiid on the sidelines, Milton bounced back and hit the game-winning three against the Spurs Monday night.

With the Sixers down two and 10.4 seconds left, Milton was inbounding the ball from the side. He got the ball into a well covered Al Horford who gave it right back, but Milton’s defender Dejounte Murray, sagged off to prevent a lob into Joel Embiid, and that left Milton open.

Ballgame. The Sixers go on to win 132-130.

Philadelphia has split its first two in the bubble.

This was a bigger blow to the Spurs, who are in a race for the eighth/ninth seed in the West and a shot at the play-in series. The Spurs had won their first two in Orlando but are now tied with the Trail Blazers for the nine seed, with New Orleans just half-a-game back after its win. It’s a Battle Royal in the West and this kind of loss could come back to bite San Antonio.

More Zion Williamson, more defense gets Pelicans first bubble win

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For two games the Pelicans played matador defense on the perimeter — Ole! — while the world was asking, “where’s Zion?”

With their playoff dreams on the line Monday night, both showed up.

Zion got to play 25 minutes and scored 23 points with seven rebounds, his attacking the rim opening up the Pelicans’ offense. More importantly, Jrue Holiday brought the defensive on Ja Morant — staying in front, cutting off his drives, and helping hold the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year to 5-of-21 shooting — sparking a night where the Pelicans held a high-powered Grizzlies offense to less than a point per possession.

The result was a 109-99 Pelicans win, their first in the bubble.

Brandon Ingram said after the Pelicans second loss in Orlando they would likely have to win out in their final six games to make the playoffs. Maybe, maybe not, but they have to rack up a lot of wins and this was a big first step. With the victory, New Orleans is 2.5 games back of eighth seed Memphis, and half-a-game game back of ninth-seed Spurs (the eighth and ninth seeds in the West almost certainly will be in a play-in series). There is still hope.

After a relatively unimpressive first two games for Zion — leading to whispers around the league about his conditioning and if he should be playing — he looked more like his best self Monday night. Even connecting with Lonzo Ball to finish a half-court alley-oop.

Zion wasn’t in peak form, going 9-of-21 from the floor and looking winded t points, but he was out on the floor and when he is his gravity opens up everything else. Brandon Ingram led the way with 24 points, including some clutch buckets late and a lot of shot creation. J.J. Redick had 16 off the bench.

The offense was the sizzle, but the Pelicans’ defense was the steak in this game. Alvin Gentry talked about the team defensive strategy on Morant, via Christian Clark of the Times-Picayune.

“We tried to keep him (Morant) out the paint as much as possible, so we gave up some 3s. But luckily for us, he only made one of them [1-of-10]. I thought we did a good job overall defensively. That was the difference in the game. We had our moments in the game offensively where we had great ball movement. But our defense is what won us the game.”

The Pelicans have to bring that energy on a back-to-back — they play the Kings’ tomorrow. Every game is still vital for them, this is a playoff sprint, not a race. Ingram was right, they can’t afford any more losses.

Because of their 3.5 game lead entering the restart, the Grizzlies are safe for now despite an 0-3 start in the bubble — losing every game by single digits. Morant is a future star, Jaren Jackson Jr. might be the best player on this team in five years (he had 22 points on the night), but this is a young team that is not consistent. It needs more shooting and that was evident tonight. They also miss Tyus Jones at backup point guard a lot.

The challenge for the Grizzlies is the five games they have left: the Jazz, Thunder, Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks. That’s a lot of brutal games lined up in a row, and Memphis needs to find some wins in there.

Michael Porter Jr. has breakout game, drops 37, Nuggets top Thunder in OT

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Michael Porter Jr. scored a career-high 37 points and Nikola Jokic had a triple-double to help the Denver Nuggets top the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-113 in overtime on Monday.

Porter, who averages just 7.5 points, had the big performance in only his third start of the season.

“He has got tremendous size, length, he can score the ball, he’s got soft touch and he does so (scores) in a very efficient manner,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “He can also rebound at a very high level. Tonight, we saw all those things put together.”

Porter made 12 of 16 shots and grabbed 12 rebounds. His previous career high was 25 points.

“All I’ve got to focus on is bringing the energy and the effort, lock in on defense and the rest will take care of itself,” Porter said.

Jokic had 30 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists. He scored 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to help Denver strengthen its hold on third place in the Western Conference standings.

It was a key win for the Nuggets, who were missing three starters. Jamal Murray sat out with left hamstring tightness, forward Will Barton sat out with left knee soreness and guard Gary Harris sat out with a strained right hip.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 24 points, Chris Paul had 23 and Danilo Gallinari added 20 for the Thunder, who also were short-handed. Thunder coach Billy Donovan said Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City’s No. 3 scorer for the season, left the bubble to join his wife for the birth of their second child.

The game was close throughout. Denver’s Monte Morris was fouled with 6 seconds remaining, and he made both free throws to give the Nuggets a 109-108 lead. Paul missed the first and made the second of two free throws with 2.9 seconds remaining to tie the game at 109. Denver’s Troy Daniels missed a floater from near the free throw line at the buzzer, and the game went to overtime.

In the extra period, Denver outscored Oklahoma City 12-4 and held the Thunder to one field goal.

“In the overtime, I thought we played terrific on both ends of the floor,” Malone said.