The youthful Orlando Magic came to the northwest and handed the Portland Trail Blazers their fourth loss in as many games on Tuesday night. In a 109-106 affair, five Magic players scored in double figures.
Orlando held Portland to their worst 3-point shooting game of the year. They finished a ghastly 17 percent from beyond the arc. While Portland put up more rebounds, assists, fast break points and held a 22-point margin in points in the paint, they were otherwise schooled by an Orlando team that led by as many as 19 in the game.
The story of the contest was Orlando’s well balanced attack. Paolo Banchero kicked things off with stellar offensive play, hitting from several spots on the floor. He and Markelle Fultz helped to establish an early lead. Moritz Wagner came in off the bench and opened up the floor, providing great offense. From the second quarter onward, his younger brother Franz Wagner took the game over. If this season put himself on the map, this game provided the exact coordinates for where he’s at in accordance with many of the great players in the league. Wendell Carter Jr. picked his spots and was uber efficient from the floor as a pillar of consistency from whistle to whistle.
Portland started off the game colder than an icebox from distance. They were neutralized by some of the best help defense seen this season from the Magic. They appeared to have studied film until it put them to sleep, as they knew how to commit off of the pick-and-roll to limit Damian Lillard’s offensive options, and to close out on the sharpshooting Jerami Grant on all 3-point attempts.
In the NBA, something’s always got to give, and as a result of keying in on Lillard and Grant, Jusuf Nurkic broke free, catalyzing runs of his own. Anfernee Simons was off on the night, and so were the Blazers, who despite a couple of valiant efforts to cut into the lead, weren’t able to bring it home yet again.
Banchero wasted no time reminding the Moda Center that he was the first pick in this year’s NBA draft, going left and finishing with an underhand layup at the rim. Fultz came down after a Blazers miss and asserted himself as a member of that prestigious club alongside Banchero by taking Lillard to the rack with purpose. Orlando’s first six points, as well as 10 of their first 13, came in the paint. Portland tried going to Nurkic down low, as well as slashing to the rim, but Orlando’s youthful and lengthy talent were magnetic in their perimeter defense — particularly in their recovery off of the help defense on the weak side. Their interior dominance prompted an early timeout from head coach Chauncey Billups after a meager five points scored in four minutes of play.
The long ball just was not falling for Rip City for most of the quarter. By the halfway mark, they were 0-7 from deep. Simons was complacent and cold from outside. Nothing was working for Portland. Banchero continued to cook out of the first timeout, hitting 3-pointers and bullying his way to the rack in transition for two-handed tomahawks with authority. The Blazers’ set plays revolved around double screens at the top of the key and inward. They’d set the double screen either on or off ball to free up a man for a highway to the rim.
Jalen Suggs had a Sportscenter Top 10 highlight play, where he ran hard to save a ball heading out-of-bounds along the left sideline, popped it into the air toward his teammates at half court, proceeded to cut hard along the baseline where he was the recipient of a beautiful bullet pass. He then faked a jump-shot and passed it to the younger Wagner, who went up strong for the easy two.
Dame ran into traffic inside of three minutes, and stepped back for a clean 3-pointer from the left wing, where he shoots 40 percent according to Second Spectrum. On defense, Orlando was committing with vigor out of the pick-and-roll whenever Lillard turned the corner. This completely stifled the Blazers’ offense. It was a near-master class from the Magic on the defensive end, and they complemented it well on offense. The score at the end of one was 33-20.
Even with Suggs and Cole Anthony in the lineup, the Magic opted to have the younger Wagner bring the ball up and initiate the offense. He got busy. He hit a nice 17 footer from the elbow off of the screen-and-roll and followed that up with a running hook shot inside. He even tried to destroy the mind, body, soul, reputation and self-esteem of Nurkic by attempting a wild one-handed dunk attempt which Nurkic stuffed, defending his pride and all of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the process.
Nurk came down a minute later and drilled a catch-and-shoot trifecta to cut the lead to 10 and force Magic Head Coach Jamahl Mosley to call timeout. When play resumed, a good defensive play freed up Shaedon Sharpe on the break for a conservative two-handed jam, further chipping into the lead. Before you knew it, the Blazers were on a. 16-1 run inside of five minutes, and Grant was a major reason for that, grabbing offensive rebounds and loose balls and finishing strong at the cup.
Hart led the break and fed Grant with a gorgeous lob that at first appeared to be errant, that Grant caught and finished with swag. The elder Wagner stopped the bleeding with a point-blank 3-pointer from dead on. Let’s give Nurkic his flowers. He was instrumental in Rip City’s comeback. He had 18 points and eight boards on 50 percent shooting from the floor and 7-9 from the charity stripe. To end the quarter, Hart threw a bullet pass off the inbounds to Nurkic, who was hacked. He converted one of two at the line. At the half, the Blazers had tied the ball game up at 50-50.
Grant treated Banchero like a rook early in the third when he went up and completely stuffed his layup attempt, fueling yet another Hart-led break that resulted in a foul drawn. The scouting report must not have been read on Wendell Carter Jr., because he hit his second 3-pointer of the night with confidence from the left wing. Quickly the lead ballooned back up to 15 points, and it took a long, drawn out four minutes and 20 seconds for Simons to hit a 30 footer and put Portland on the board. Carter hit a third 3-pointer, and Lillard answered with a rim-run deuce.
The Magic showcased a wide variety of nuance to their game throughout. This young team was in the process of showing the world that they are maturity and one star-caliber player away from being a special team. Dame was not about to have their coming out party happen at his expense. He found success slicing middle for easy paint points. He even put Cole Anthony on a poster with a vicious one-handed dunk.
To end the quarter, Lillard had the ball with six seconds left. Trapped in a corner, every Blazers fan knew what he was going to do, and he did it. He took a one-dribble side step to the left, let it fly and it was all money — blue notes at that. 82-73 was the closing score of the third quarter.
Simons jumped on the launchpad and rejected the elder Wagner’s dunk attempt. He led the break and found Sharpe who took it to the rack with a contorted layup to cut the lead to eight. A Hart and-one cut the lead to five. Then, something unacceptable happened. Four Blazers were in or near the paint, without a Magic player in sight. A shot went up, and Anthony — the smallest player on the floor — swooped in for a layup attempt. Luckily for them, he missed the point-blank bunny, and after the younger Wagner hit a two-pointer, Simons came down and drilled a deuce off of the assist from Hart.
Portland seemed to resort to a quasi-2-3 zone inside of eight minutes, but were burned with a Franz Wagner triple. Carter Jr. continued to put pressure on the Trail Blazers defense by diving hard to the rim off of screens and making himself a lob threat.
With the Magic hanging onto a five point lead midway through the fourth, Fultz rose up from the baseline for a 15-footer — a shot he would have one time been scoffed and mocked at for taking — and drilled it. Lillard got the step on his man on the other end and fed Drew Eubanks in the dunker spot for the jam. Then, the younger Wagner went deep in his bag, and came out with three consecutive buckets. He started off his personal 7-0 run with a conventional layup through traffic. He then jazzed it up on the next possession with a reverse layup with extra English, before growing tired of the inside game and pulling up from 25 for a straight-on 3-pointer.
Facing a 10-point deficit with 3:31 to go, Lillard put his shoulder into Carter Jr.’s chest and came away with a tough layup to make it eight. Then, Simons made a beeline to the rim and got hacked, converting the and-one attempt to make it five. The lead hovered between four and six points until the final minute. 107-103 with 44 seconds to go yielded the Blazers their biggest stop of the game, and then “Dame Time” started ringing in the ears of everyone in Portland like tinnitus. Lillard drew a foul from deep and drilled all three free throws. Portland deployed a full-court press off of the inbounds pass, and hacked Fultz. To the chagrin of all Blazers fans, he hit both from the charity stripe. Down three, that tinnitus came back, and it was louder. Unfortunately it was not to be. The Magic defense keyed in on Lillard, and with three opportunities to win it, they bricked each and every attempt in heartbreaking fashion.
The Trail Blazers will look to eradicate the “Trail” in their name and establish an early lead that they can keep against the Cleveland Cavaliers in their next game. They will be squaring up against the reigning NBA Player of the Week in the Eastern Conference, who made history with a 71-point performance a few games back, and just dropped 46 points in his return to Utah.