Portland Trail Blazers (34-32) vs. Orlando Magic (28-36)
Saturday, March 12
Moda Center | 7:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGW; 620 AM
Portland injury report: None | Orlando injury report: Nikola Vucevic (Groin - Out), Elfrid Payton (Elbow - Out)
SBN Affiliate: Orlando Pinstriped Post
The Blazers are coming off a 128-112 loss to the Golden State Warriors last night in Oakland. After an impressive January and February, the Blazers have stumbled to losses in four of their last five games. The schedule doesn't get any easier, either, as Portland heads to the Midwest for a four-game road trip that includes stops in Oklahoma City and San Antonio after tonight's game. The impending trip makes a victory against the struggling Magic essential for the Blazers if they hope to keep pace with the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks in the fight for the sixth seed.
The Magic are coming off a 107-100 win over the Sacramento Kings (absent a suspended DeMarcus Cousins) last night. Despite the win, Orlando has been reeling in recent months. After starting the season 19-13 they have won only eight of their last 31 games. For a team that hoped to challenge for a playoff spot, the season has been a grave disappointment.
One of Orlando's early season wins came against the Blazers on Dec. 18. Behind 25 points each from Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic, the Magic defeated Portland 102-94 in Orlando. The Blazers were led by 27 points from C.J. McCollum, but McCollum also missed a key 3-pointer that could have cut the Magic lead to three with less than a minute to play.
Since the December showdown the Magic have made some personnel changes. Most notably, they traded Tobias Harris to the Milwaukee Bucks for Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings. The trade cleared significant long-term cap space for the Magic. Harris has three years remaining on a 4-year, $64 million contract, while Jennings is a free agent at the end of this season and Ilyasova has one non-guaranteed year at about $8 million remaining on his contract. GM Rob Hennigan had reportedly decided that Harris' development had leveled off and that his four-year deal would quickly become cumbersome by next season.
The Harris trade was also intended to shore up the rotation as the Magic made a run at the playoffs. Orlando is one of the youngest teams in the league. Elfrid Payton, their 22-year old starting point guard, in particular, had struggled through inconsistent play. Hennigan hoped that Jennings could serve as a mentor and stabilizing force in the backcourt. In addition, Ilyasova was expected to add rebounding and outside shooting to the frontcourt. Unfortunately for Orlando fans, both players have struggled to adapt to their new team and the Magic are 5-7 since the trade as a result.
Harris, on the other hand, has played well in Detroit, averaging 16 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game, while shooting 54 percent from the field. With the playoffs a virtual impossibility, Hennigan will be graded for this trade based on his ability to draw a marquee free agent to Orlando with the $45 million in cap space the team is projected to have this offseason.
On a positive note, should-have-been-slam dunk champion Aaron Gordon has emerged as a legitimate offensive threat around the basket, averaging 12 points and nine rebounds since the All-Star break. The 6-foot-9 Gordon relies primarily on his athleticism and ball-handling skills to score around other, less athletic power forwards. He lacks a midrange shot, but has doubled his free throw rate in recent weeks to compensate. Erik Gundersen of the Columbian calls Gordon an "evolutionary left-handed Blake Griffin."
The Magic are also beginning to rely more on the Croatian rookie Mario Hezonja. Hezonja joined the Magic from the Spanish ACB league and struggled to adapt early on. Despite that, the team has held out hope that he will become an elite scoring threat from the wing. On the positive side, Hezonja recently scored a career-high 21 points against the Chicago Bulls and his minutes have increased incrementally by month all season. His supposedly spectacular jump shot, however, has not yet materialized and Hezonja has failed to score efficiently.
The key players tonight for Orlando will be Victor Oladipo and Evan Fournier. Scott Skiles implemented a ball-movement heavy offense that initially slowed Oladipo's scoring, but he has since adapted and is averaging 18 points since the All-Star break. Fournier is a great outside shooter, converting at 40 percent from three for the season.
The Magic will be without Vucevic, their leading scorer and rebounder, and starting point guard Payton tonight. Vucevic has dominated the paint against the Blazers in the past so his absence will be felt. Jason Smith and C.J. Watson will start at center and point guard, respectively.
Keys to the game:
Take advantage of poor Orlando defense: The Magic have struggled recently to contain opposing guards, and their backcourt defense has been identified as a key reason for the team's recent losses. The Los Angeles Lakers backcourt, for example, hung 51 points on them earlier this week. Damian Lillard has traditionally struggled against the Magic, but he should be able to reverse that trend tonight.
Remember your analytics: The Magic are No. 28 in 3-point defense in 2016, and No. 26 in paint defense over the last 11 games. Portland shouldn't let them off the hook by settling for midrange jumpers; if the Blazers stick to the tenets of the highly efficient Stottsfense they should be able to take advantage. McCollum, especially, should not settle for midrange jumpers tonight, but instead try to get into the lane and put pressure on the Orlando big men.
Force Gordon out of the lane: With Vucevic out Gordon will be the Magic's primary offensive threat in the frontcourt. Portland's defense against big men has not been great, but the Blazers do have the athletes to match up with a power forward who relies on face-up athleticism. If Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, and others can keep Gordon out of the lane it will significantly hamper the Orlando offense.