Orlando Magic at Utah Jazz game preview
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TIME: Coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. ET
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Last season, the Utah Jazz reached the halfway point five games under .500 and two years ago, they reached the midpoint 13 games under .500.
This time, the Jazz will begin the second half in much better shape despite being beset by injuries at times.
Among the reasons for the improvement is a top-ranked scoring defense and the Jazz get another chance to display their effective defense Saturday night when they host the Orlando Magic.
"That's our identity," Utah guard Rodney Hood said. "That's how we're going to be the team we want to be. We got to defend. It makes offense so much easier when we're making it harder for other people."
Utah is 25-16 through 41 games and it is the team's best mark at the halfway point in an 82-game season since 2010-11 when it was 27-14. The one difference from this year and 2011 was the last game of the first half began a six-game losing streak and the Jazz wound up with 39 wins.
The Jazz are on pace for their first 50-win season since 2009-2010 despite using 15 starting lineup and their roster missing a combined 100 games due to injuries or illness. Utah's injury report was empty Friday when the Jazz allowed 14 points in the fourth quarter of a 110-77 rout of the Detroit Pistons.
Utah took control during the third quarter and wound up with its seventh win in 10 games since losing three straight from Dec. 20-23. The Jazz have allowed less than 100 points in their last six wins and 21 times overall.
While the defense clicked so did the offense Friday and only Rudy Gobert played 30 minutes. Rodney Hood scored a career-high 27 points, George Hill added 22 and Gordon Hayward contributed 20 as the trio combined to shoot 66 percent and make 15 3-pointers.
"We didn't shoot the ball well in the first quarter," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "But I think the guys still played offense the right way when the shots weren't going down. That's our challenge, to continue to play the right way. We have to do that when we're not making shots."
Hood is 17-for-29 in his last two games after shooting 11 of 40 in his previous four games. Hill is averaging 17.2 points in his last four games after missing three games with concussion-like symptoms and a lacerated lip.
Hayward has 25 games with at least 20 points this season and Utah is 18-7 in those games.
Orlando is halfway through a six-game trip that will take them through Denver and New Orleans after Saturday. The first two games did not go well as the Magic dropped a 111-95 decision to the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday and were handed a 105-96 defeat by the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday.
Nikola Vucevic returned to the starting lineup Wednesday after coming off the bench in his previous 20 games. He totaled 16 points and 12 rebounds against the Clippers but was even better in Friday's 115-108 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
Vucevic scored a season-high 30 points and added 10 rebounds in a game where Orlando made its first eight shots and bolted to an 18-1 lead before letting Portland back in it.
"He has a lot of stuff to his game," Orlando coach Frank Vogel said. "You can throw it to him in the low post, he crashes the glass, and he has the pick-and-pop game. He brings a lot to the table.
Vucevic's most productive showing snapped a four-game losing streak and also was Orlando's sixth win in its last 19 games since getting three straight wins Dec. 2-6.
"We needed that," Vucevic said. "We needed a game like that to see that we can do it. We've had a lot of games where we were playing pretty well, and the (other) team would make a run and we would kind of fall apart."
Vucevic's night helped compensate for another tough night for Evan Fournier. Fournier shot 3 of 10 and is shooting 36 percent (22 of 61) in five games since returning from a right heel contusion.
Orlando's inconsistency resulted in a 17-24 record at the halfway point. It is three games of last year's mark when the Magic won 35 games and it is the fifth straight season Orlando is under .500 at the halfway point.
"Displeased with our record and pleased with our togetherness and our belief in what we can still do this season," Vogel said before Friday's win. '"There are just a lot of areas that we can improve upon."
Among them are on offense. While the Magic are in the middle of pack defensively (103.4 points per game), they are one of seven teams averaging less than 100 points and Friday was the seventh time, the offense produced at least 110 points.
Utah is 9-3 in the last 12 meetings. On Nov. 11, Hayward scored 20 points and the Jazz held Orlando to 10 points in the fourth quarter in an 87-74 win.