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Portland Trailblazers vs. Orlando Magic Preview

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The Blazers are in Orlando to take on a suddenly formidable Magic team.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (11-16) vs Orlando Magic (14-11)
Friday, December 18
Amway Center | 4:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report
Chris Kaman (out) | Orlando injury report: C.J. Watson (out)
SBN Affiliate: Orlando Pinstriped Post | Blazer's Edge Night 2016

The Blazers arrive in Orlando to face a young and exciting team that seems to just be hitting its stride and should make a serious challenge for a playoff spot in the East. They are playing team-oriented ball on both ends, making the extra pass without a singular star to feed, and accordingly sport five players averaging between 11.8 and 15.5 points per game. If you look at the Spurs as dinosaurs, these Magic are on their way to being Dinosaur Jr.

Looking down the sideline, Portland may well be spying a looking-glass version of what they hope to be by the end of this year or the beginning of next.

The Blazers are basically staring at a mirror in terms of standard team statistics: the numbers and percentages for the two teams are almost identical across the board, with the main differences being that the Blazers take a few more 3-pointers and free throws, while the Magic get about two more steals and a block-and-a-half more per game. Digging in a little further, it’s clear that the big thing that sets these teams apart is defense: Orlando has jumped from No. 27 in defensive efficiency last year all the way to No. 7 this year under the guidance of Scott Skiles. Continuity for a youthful and athletic unit has likely helped this cause as well.

The Magic’s biggest weakness for much of the year was their offense, which especially scuffled in the half-court when the game was on the line. However, they have really gotten in a flow lately, with their most recent performance being a crescendo of sorts. The highlights serve as a good introduction to this team and its potential:

Yeah, this might not be the best time to visit Epcot Center. In the game above, the Magic had 28 assists on 43 field goals, while shooting 55.8 percent from the field and 58.3 percent from range. What makes their patience and court awareness all the more impressive is that the biggest minutes are allotted to three 23-year-olds (Tobias Harris, Evan Fournier, and Victor Oladipo), a 21-year-old point guard (Elfrid Payton), with a 25-year-old center being the elder statesman (Nikolas Vucevic).

Vucevic (15.5 PPG, 2.5 AST) is especially nimble and savvy for a young 7-footer, and is a smooth finisher with either hand out to jump-hook range. He tops that off with rugged defense and a nose for rebounds—he’s averaged a double-double for the last three years, but is down to 8.6 boards per game so far this campaign.

PF Harris (14.2 PPG, 7.3 RPG) is another rising star, a big-bodied and athletic scorer with an impressive array of ways to drop points on opponents’ heads. Then you have three big-time penetrators in Oladipo, Payton, and Fournier.

Fournier, a 6-foot-7 French national, has emerged as a go-to-guy (14.6 PPG), surprising most everyone who hasn’t been combing NBA backwaters the last couple seasons. But the truth is he is putting up similar offensive rates to those of his first three seasons in the league—just in more minutes—while gradually cutting his foul and turnover rates. With the handles to run the point and the length to play the 3, along with sinking 39.2 percent of his 3-pointers, he’s exhibiting the kind of flexibility cherished by the modern NBA.

Oladipo (13.7 PPG, 5.5 REB, 3.7 AST) has the type of breath-taking aerial artistry that has long been cherished by hoops heads in general. He should definitely work out some kind of flight-time-based endorsement with an airline, or Nike Air, or at least Airheads candy. He is currently coming off the bench, due to struggles with his outside shot (39.9 percent FG, 27.6 percent from three).

The super-quick 6-foot-4 Payton wreaks havoc at the rim and in passing lanes with his 6-foot-8 wingspan. Portland fans should remember him from his triple-double performance against them last year as a rookie. If not, they should remember him from this point forward once laying eyes on his Flock of Seagulls hairstyle:

Meanwhile, Orlando has an intriguing assortment of possibility outside of their point guard's hair, with eight additional players beyond the core contributors seeing an average of at least 12 minutes in their appearances.

Channing Frye disappointed last year after signing a big contract, and was on his way to being best known for being Tobias Harris' cousin.  But Frye has been starting lately and seeing 17 MPG as a floor-stretcher, connecting on 44.9 percent of his shots from distance, including 8 of 12 in the last two games (both wins). If he stays on his roll, this gives Orlando another wrinkle which will make them even harder to slow down.

20-year-old PF Aaron Gordon (7.3 PPG 4.8 REB) brings energy and athleticism on both sides of the ball off the bench. He is making a name for himself with some highlight-reel dunks, yet his defensive acumen is especially impressive for his age.

The long-armed Andrew Nicholson is another 6-foot-9 forward making an impact off the bench. Center Jason Smith has a mid-range game and is a hard-nosed defender, and Dewayne Dedmon has been offering rebounding support at the five. The fifth pick of this year’s draft, SF Mario Hezonja, is an intriguing prospect who is getting about a dozen minutes and room to grow. Second-year man and former UConn star Shabazz Napier brings yet more potential on a roster fairly overflowing with it.

What the Blazers Need to Do to Win

Pack the paint: The Blazers are last in the league in allowing ‘tweener’ shots from 5-to-9 feet out to fall. With the grab-bag of hooks, floaters, and runners that Vucevic, Fournier, Payton, and Co. will offer, as well as all the off-the-dribble skill Orlando posseses, making the paint a claustrophobic place seems like a good approach. They could easily get an extra man in there if they…

Give Oladipo and Payton jump shots like candy canes: Both these guys make their money at the rim. And given the stats, it makes sense to give them a huge cushion on the outside. Even though he’s hitting only a quarter of his threes, Oladipo is still averaging four attempts per game. He also hits only 26.9 percent of his shots in catch-and-shoot situations. While Payton’s jump shot is a clear liability at 31.4 percent, looking even further we can see that he hits just 18.7 percent of his jumpers when he is unattended; he actually hits at 55.9 percent in pull-up situations. So stay away! And let them chuck.

This should be a good test to see if the Blazers are more focused on winning individual battles, or the war. They recently had a similar situation against the horrid shooting of Michael Carter-Williams of the Bucks, but they chose to play him aggressively, and he ended up torching them, including notching key plays down the stretch. Another thing Portland failed to do against another young, long team in Milwaukee was…

Take care of the ball: The Magic are in the top third of the league in steals, points off turnovers, and points on the break. While the Magic generally rely more on individual playmaking than scheming like the Bucks do, the mandate for the Blazers is clear: don’t rush and be sure of your passing lanes.

No freebies: The Magic are dead last in the association in free throw attempts, but they hit at a 77.2 percent rate. Do not do them any favors; play the role of Krampus to these young ones.

Outlook

This is going to be tough sledding, since it’s 74 degrees in Orlando and the Magic look particularly hard to handle right now. Yep, nothing says Christmas in Orlando right now. You never know: with youth often comes inconsistency. Yet unless there are some surprising developments or the Blazers get exceptionally hot, odds are this goes down as a road loss.

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