It’s a decent bet nobody predicted when the 2017-18 NBA schedule came out that the Orlando Magic and Memphis Grizzlies would both occupy first place in their respective conferences — Memphis by its lonesome, Orlando in a tie with the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons — when they squared off at FedExForum on the first night of November. But that’s the wild reality in which we find ourselves a couple of weeks into the new season — one that produced a very weird finish at the Grindhouse, featuring another piece of evidence to suggest that something unexpected might be sticking around.
With just under one minute left in the fourth quarter and the Magic trailing the Grizz by two, 99-97, Orlando coach Frank Vogel put the ball in the hands of swingman Evan Fournier, his top playmaker thus far this season. The French forward came off a pair of screens at the left elbow, and as soon as he took the pass from Jonathon Simmons, two Grizzlies moved around a Nikola Vucevic screen to swarm him above the 3-point arc. Fournier drove left to beat the closeout, and as he did, he saw what that double-team produced — an open teammate flashing free.
After setting his screen on the initial action, Aaron Gordon had rolled clear toward the basket, standing all alone 12 feet away from the rim. As Fournier put the ball on the floor, though, Memphis center Marc Gasol realized that Gordon was unmarked, and began sliding over to both check him and position himself between the driving Fournier and the basket. As he did, Gordon smartly flowed to the corner, knowing there wasn’t another Grizzlies defender who could make the rotation over to him if Fournier hit him with an outlet pass. The feed came, and Gordon set his feet, raised up, and buried a corner 3 that put the Magic up 100-99 with 51.7 seconds to go in regulation.
“There was some sort of miscommunication on their part,” Gordon said of the Grizzlies’ defense that left him wide open, according to Clay Bailey of The Associated Press. “I saw Evan start to drive and I had to relocate. I got to the 3-point line and knocked it down.”
The Grizzlies still had time to mount a comeback. In times like these, Memphis typically looks in the direction of point guard and leader Mike Conley to take the reins. But with Conley sidelined by a sore left Achilles tendon, the ball was in the hands of bumped-up backup Mario Chalmers … and that didn’t go so hot.
Fortunately, he had company in that regard.
Mario Chalmers and Terrence Ross are competing in some sort of unforced error olympics.
— Rob Mahoney (@RobMahoney) November 2, 2017
After Chalmers drove into the teeth of the Magic defense and just threw the ball out of bounds under the basket, Orlando had a chance to work some clock and get a bucket to try to ice the game. Instead, everything went “Benny Hill.”
• Terrence Ross just slips and falls down while dribbling the ball, allowing Chalmers to grab a steal and race out for a breakaway layup;
• Chalmers, feeling the looming presence of sprinting center Vucevic, slows down and tries to lean in to draw a foul rather than going up strong with the ball or pulling it back out to wait for reinforcements … only Vucevic doesn’t make enough contact to merit a whistle, so he flings up a wild heave that misses;
• Simmons passes the ball to Ross in the corner … except Ross’ foot is on the sideline when catches the pass, meaning he’s out of bounds, meaning the Grizz get the ball back down one with 26.8 seconds left;
• After Chalmers missed an open step-back 3 — a shot he probably felt he had to take after his defender stumbled to the ground, but one that meant All-Star center Marc Gasol (who had scored the Grizzlies’ last two buckets before the final minute) didn’t get a say in the proceedings — with 17 seconds remaining, the Grizzlies take their last foul to give. Ross, trusted by Vogel to trigger the inbounds pass, just throws the ball away, allowing Tyreke Evans (who led all scorers with 32 points in 34 minutes off the Memphis bench) to steal it and get the Grizzlies one last look;
• Rookie Dillon Brooks, who had just buried a 3 in front of the Magic bench with 2:51 to go, steps into a wiiiiiide-open look from the right wing … only to see it rim in and out. The Magic rebounded the miss, surviving for a solid (if scary at the end) 101-99 road win.
After the game, Grizzlies coach David Fizdale made it clear that he didn’t believe his team deserved to win the game — “Our huddles were a joke. Our communication was ridiculous. No one owned anything” — and said he was especially frustrated because, even despite all that, it was “a game we had in our grips” and let slip away, thanks in part to the late-game implosion by Chalmers:
Fizdale post game part 2 pic.twitter.com/J2PPj10BUs
— Grizzly Bear Blues (@sbnGrizzlies) November 2, 2017
Well, Mario made a ridiculous play. I don’t need to really go too deep into that. He heard it from me, and he understands that. In the heat of the moment, he couldn’t own it. And that’s exactly what I meant — like, 25,000 people was in here and saw that that was the most ridiculous play of the whole game, but because of … his brain was gone, he couldn’t just own it, that it was a boneheaded play.
Chalmers, who finished with seven points on 3-for-12 shooting with five assists, four steals and three rebounds in 26 minutes in place of Conley, did come around to shouldering his share of the blame after the game:
Credit to Mario Chalmers. He said: "(Fizdale) is 100% right. I take ownership for the last plays – the turnover, the missed 3 – that's on me. I have to take control, run the team like Mike runs the team and I didn't do that tonight."
— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) November 2, 2017
More Chalmers: "I shouldn't have even worried about the foul (on the layup attempt). That's all on me. I feel like I lost the game for us."
— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) November 2, 2017
Whatever the Grizzlies might have done to lose it, though, the Magic — outside of Ross’ own late-game out-of-body experience — deserve credit for what they did to win it.
Fournier led the way with 22 points, eight rebounds, three assists and a steal in 37 minutes for a Magic team that saw nine players chip in at least five points. Orlando shot 50.7 percent from the floor as a team and went 13-for-29 from 3-point land, and dished 25 assists on 38 made field goals, withstanding a late Memphis charge to keep the strong start rolling:
At 6-2, the Magic are off to their best start through eight games since they opened the 2009-10 season with a 6-2 record.
— Josh Robbins (@JoshuaBRobbins) November 2, 2017
Gordon added 19 on 7-for-11 shooting, with two more 3-pointers on four tries, including his second game-winning triple in a week. The 22-year-old power forward, who came into this season shooting 28.9 percent from long distance, is now knocking down 57.7 percent of his 3-pointers on more than four attempts per game.
While nobody expects Gordon to knock down three-fifths of his long-range tries, whether he can be a legitimate marksman — a super-bouncy playmaking stretch four in Vogel’s offense — remains one of the most intriguing questions of the early season. He sure sounds convinced that this is less a hot streak than the new normal, according to Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:
“There’s more to come,” Gordon said. “Obviously, I’m happy but I’m not satisfied. I’m definitely at peace with where my shot is now, but there’s just more to come.”
And if that’s true for Gordon, it could also be true for the Magic.
As I’ve written, Vogel seemed to figure out what version of the Magic made the most sense midway through last season — only one true big man on the floor, Gordon at power forward, Fournier and Ross on the wing, and a table-setter at point — and Orlando started carving up defenses as soon as he tilted his lineups that way. With ex-Spurs second-unit monster Simmons added to the fold, the Magic have more athletes, more versatility and more juice in their lineups, and the smaller, spread-out style is working wonders. Orlando now sits second in the NBA in offensive efficiency (scoring 109.9 points per 100 possessions, behind only the Golden State Warriors) and eighth in defensive efficiency (allowing 100.2 points-per-100, right between the Toronto Raptors and Charlotte Hornets), and remain tied with the Celtics atop the Eastern standings.
You’re telling me a Magic squad with a good coach, a returning core, a great add in Simmons and Gordon playing the right position works?
— Aaron Bruski (@aaronbruski) November 2, 2017
Vogel’s cautioning against anyone starting to sell playoff tickets just yet — “These are just early signs,” he said, according to Robbins of the Sentinel — but more and more, with each passing day, it’s looking like it. Unsustainably hot teamwide shooting or no, the Magic might actually be pretty good … just as everybody predicted. (Well, almost everybody.)
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