Portland Trail Blazers (19-20) vs Orlando Magic (15-26)
After a disheartening 0-3 road trip, the Portland Trail Blazers take on the youthful Orlando Magic tonight at the friendly confines of the Moda Center.
The Blazers’ latest three game slide hurt because it was supposed to be a chance to inflate their record against beatable opponents: two sub-.500 teams and the solid, but not phenomenal Indiana Pacers. Instead, Portland lost all three in yucky fashion, falling behind by double digits in each game, turning the ball over an ungodly amount and failing to eek out wins in crunch time. Rather than beef up their record, the Blazers fell to below .500 for the first time this season and have been forced to take a long look in the mirror about where they stand.
Cue the Magic, another supposedly beatable, sub-.500 team. Playing on the second night of a back-to-back, Orlando is coming off a 136-111 obliteration by the Sacramento Kings. Two days prior to that beatdown, the Magic took down the Golden State Warriors 115-111. With lots of raw, young talent, we’ll see which version of Orlando shows up tonight.
Trail Blazers vs. Magic - Tuesday, January 10 - 7:00 p.m. PT
How to watch on TV: Root Sports Plus, NBA League Pass
Blazers injuries: Nassir Little (out), Justise Winslow (out), Jusuf Nurkic (probable), Gary Payton II (probable)
Magic Injuries: Jonathan Isaac (out), Chuma Okeke (out)
SBN Affiliate: Orlando Pinstriped Post
Turnovers. At this point, you could copy and paste this bullet point into the “The Matchup” section of every game preview for the Blazers. Turnovers continue to kill this team, no matter how many games go by, no matter how much Chauncey Billups and company say they’re addressing the issue in practice. The Blazers average the fifth-most turnovers per game (15.8) of any team in the NBA. The recent road trip sunk Portland to new lows. Portland coughed the ball up 18 times in each of the first two games, then turned the ball over a season-high 24 times against the Toronto Raptors, leading to 29 points off turnovers. The turnovers also helped Toronto attempt 15 more field goals than Portland. It’s near-impossible to overcome disparities like that. If Portland can’t fix the turnover bug against Orlando, the other games within the game may become moot.
Gary Payton II? Even as I write this bullet point, I do so apprehensively. But on the morning of tonight’s showdown with Orlando, Gary Payton II is listed as “probable” to play. I believe he’s going to suit up tonight. Assuming he does, his defense and spark off the bench should help a struggling Blazers team relocate its mojo. In his one game played this season, Payton II had an impact with his seven points, four assists, two rebounds and patented defensive pressure, all shown in just 13 minutes. He also added a new dynamic to the offense, proving to be an effective screener and decision-maker off the short roll. If he plays tonight, I would expect his game to be the type that thrives against a young Orlando team. If he doesn’t play, it becomes a storyline because Portland will again need rely on a super-thin bench unit and likely need to play starters heavy minutes. Against Toronto, that thin bench unit accounted for three points. Yikes.
Rookie Showdown. Tonight’s matchup includes a showdown between two of the most exciting rookies in the NBA: Orlando’s Paolo Banchero and Portland’s Shaedon Sharpe. The 6’10 forward Banchero — the first overall pick in June’s NBA Draft — is likely on his way to bringing home Rookie of the Year. He’s averaging 21.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game so far and is having no trouble adjusting to the physicality of his NBA peers at just 20. At 19, Sharpe isn’t at the physical level of Banchero yet and he’s much, much more inconsistent (7.6 points per game), but he’s shown amazing flashes of talent off the bench for Portland, hinting at a promise of future stardom. Sharpe’s best games tend to come against young, rebuilding teams, so he could be primed for a solid performance against his fellow Lottery Pick tonight. As mentioned above, Portland could use some more scoring off the bench.
What Others Are Saying
Garrett Townsend of Orlando Pinstriped Post says it’s time for the Magic to move out of the rebuild phase and think about loftier goals.
Orlando’s decision-makers have done an admirable job of securing young talent in the formative stages of the rebuild, with a decent chunk of a high-ceiling core already in place. However, that success is what now puts them on the clock. Moving forward the challenge will no longer simply be asset accumulation, but instead to sufficiently add to what they have built in a way that raises the roster’s overall talent level and elevates the team’s potential. This will also need to be achieved while navigating the looming deadline that rookie extensions can impose on a side’s salary cap situation and future acquisition flexibility.
As such, it is essential that in the next twelve months Orlando’s front office has the team positioned to leave behind the rebuild and to begin the process of meaningfully chasing wins.
With Banchero and second-year forward Franz Wagner at the core of the roster, there seems to be a consensus around the league that Orlando’s future is bright and the franchise could be active at the upcoming trade deadline. Look at this quote from a Jake Fischer piece for Yahoo Sports:
“They have two of the premier positions in the league — playmaking forwards — on rookie-scale contracts, intriguing young talent around them on solid contracts, no bad money moving forward, and some veterans who could get them back even more draft capital should they choose to trade them,” one Eastern Conference team strategist told Yahoo Sports.