The Orlando Magic sought a more veteran presence and switched up the starting lineup. The first game reviews do not provide much more clarity to this team.
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The Orlando Magic entered Friday’s game against the Utah Jazz knowing they needed a bit of an energy boost. The team had gotten off to sluggish start after sluggish start, burying the team in a hole it did not have the will or discipline to climb out of. Back-to-back blowouts necessitated some change.
The change Frank Vogel made was certainly somewhat shocking.
He opted to move Jeff Green into the lineup over Aaron Gordon. He inserted Damjan Rudez into the second unit with C.J. Watson, sending Mario Hezonja to the end of the bench. The Magic’s all-in season was truly all in, hoping to find a spark and get more reliable veterans into the lineup to ease some pressure off the young players.
The Magic’s energy and defensive intensity certainly picked up. But the ultimate result was the same.
An energetic start quickly faded. The fourth quarter became the same old story — a series of bricks one after the other and a defense that had gaps and succumbed to their offensive frustration.
Orlando’s new lineup did not deliver the necessary results, even if it woke up the team some.
“We know things happen,” Serge Ibaka said. “In this league anything can happen. You have to be ready to play.”
The final tally in an 87-74 loss to the Utah Jazz at Amway Center on Friday was ultimately the same as previous games in one important way. It was a loss.
The starting unit did not do anything particularly abnormal. The grouping of Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka and Nikola Vucevic lost the battle against the Jazz 28-26 in 30 possessions. That still equates to a decent defensive rating. The Magic’s lineup experiment had at least moderate success in this game.
But it was hard to say exactly what Green brought, except perhaps a lower usage rate. Green scored just four points on 1-for-6 shooting, missing all three of his 3-pointers.
Aaron Gordon, in the meantime came in during the second quarter and provided a jolt of energy. He scored nine points on 4-for-9 shooting, missing his only 3-pointer on a wide open look in the corner in the second half. Gordon was able to cut and crash to the basket thanks to space Damjan Rudez provided added to the lineup.
“It’s real comfortable,” Gordon said. “I had to play my way into the game at first. It’s easy to play with those guys out there. They make the right play every single time. For me, it just makes it fun.”
Gordon was still playing the 3 for the most part — save for a brief stint early in the fourth quarter with Ibaka at center — but the extra space from a true stretch-4 helped him attack the basket more effectively.
The lineup change surprisingly benefited Gordon more as he still unleashed his defensive smothering on Gordon Hayward on several occasions.
“I thought Aaron playing with more of a spread lineup benefited him,” Vogel said. “I thought he had more space to do some things on the offensive end with his cuts and his crashes. I thought he was more effective.”
The Magic cut into an eight-point lead in the second quarter and took the lead, turning the game into a back-and-forth affair. One the Magic had every chance of winning until their offense dried up.
As much as any game this year, despite the offense’s struggles, this showed exactly how the Magic wanted to play. The second unit in particular was able to get stops, push the ball in transition and score before the defense could get set.
Orlando had 19 fast-break points in the game. That was what provided the energy for the team as much as anything. At the end of the game, as Orlando missed shot after shot, it was because of this inability to get easy baskets that doomed the offense to a 3-for-21 performance in the final quarter.
“We just tried to play with the same energy we always do,” D.J. Augustin said. “Push the ball, play defense. I think we played good defense tonight. We just couldn’t get any stops.”
Everything goes back to defense.
But now everything goes back to finding that energy. And judging by how things shook out in this game, that energy was inconsistent at best. It was not necessarily the stability of the veterans that helped the Magic compete in this game. It was finding better combinations.
The results in this first game were decidedly mixed. It is unclear still how effective taking Gordon out of the starting lineup is. There is certainly a need for energy in the starting five as much as there is a need for stability.
There were moments where the Magic looked more fluid with Green in there as much as there were moments where it was hard to tell Green was out there. Similarly, Gordon dominated the second unit and made a clear difference in one moment, and was merely just a defender in another.
Perhaps it takes more than one game of experimentation to determine what the right combination is. The experimenting for Vogel and his team is sure to continue as ultimately the tinkering still resulted in a loss.