The Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic are two teams headed in starkly different directions. The Nets currently own the NBA’s longest winning streak at seven games despite the fact that Kevin Durant has been sidelined for quite a while. The Magic, meanwhile, have fallen out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture amid a rash of injuries of their own.
The two teams will square off in Brooklyn tonight. The Nets are now 21-12 on the season and second in the Eastern Conference. Brooklyn is playing their best basketball of the season entering the All-Star break, and the sky is the limit for this team once Durant returns. This will be the second meeting between the teams this season after the Nets picked up a 122-115 win back on January 16. That was actually the game in which James Harden debuted for the Nets.
The Magic are just 13-19, but they have won three of their last four coming into tonight’s contest. Orlando is still only fourth in the Southeast Division, but their playoff hopes are far from dead. The bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture is still wide-open, and Orlando enters tonight’s game two games adrift of the eighth and final postseason spot.
The Nets are listed as 8.5-point favorites at home in this one.
Harden was slogging his way through the beginning of the season with the Rockets, but he has looked rejuvenated since his trade to Brooklyn. Through 19 games with his new team, the former MVP is averaging 25.2 points, 11.6 assists, and 8.5 rebounds. He’s not getting as much shot volume as he did in Houston, but he has been efficient with the shots he does get. Harden is shooting better than 49 percent from the floor and nearly 42 percent from long range as a Net.
Harden has happily taken up a role as Brooklyn’s primary distributor, which has left Kyrie Irving to handle a big scoring load. Kyrie has even more responsibility on his plate with Durant sidelined, but we know Irving is more than happy to pick up the slack. Kyrie is averaging better than 27 points per game this season while shooting just under 52 percent from the field, which is impressive efficiency given his shot volume.
The Nets still have a long way to go on the defensive side of the floor, but teams are going to have a hard time outscoring them. Even without Durant for most of it, Brooklyn has averaged over 121 points per game over the course of their winning streak. As of now, the Nets are also the only team in NBA history to feature three players averaging at least 25 points per game.
Harden isn’t doing quite as much scoring as he did during his heyday with the Rockets, but his more well-rounded effort is paying off. Harden has already posted six triple-doubles through his first 19 games with the Nets. That is already the second-most triple-doubles of any player in the history of the Nets’ franchise, which dates back to the 1970s. Only Jason Kidd (61) has put up more triple-doubles as a member of the Nets all-time.
The Magic have been bitten by the injury bug an awful lot so far in 2020-21. Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz are both done for the season, while Al-Farouq Aminu, Cole Anthony, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, and Michael Carter-Williams have all missed time with various maladies of their own.
The one and only constant has been Nikola Vucevic. While the Magic may be facing an uphill climb to reach the playoffs again this season, Vucevic has been rewarded for his Herculean effort with another All-Star selection. And deservedly so. At this point, it’s fair to wonder whether the Magic big man is the most under-appreciated player in the game. Through 32 appearances on the year, Vucevic is averaging 23.9 points, 11.7 rebounds, and nearly two blocks/steals per game.
Vucevic has been even more productive so far this month. Through 11 games in February, the USC product has posted averages of 26.5 points and 13.2 rebounds while logging huge minutes on a nightly basis. With the Magic down so many key players, Steve Clifford has had no choice but to ride the big man as often as he possibly can.
With so many players out of the mix, it’s no surprise that the Magic rank among the worst offensive teams in basketball. Orlando is mustering just 103.5 points per 100 possessions, which puts them slightly ahead of Cleveland and Oklahoma City, who are tied for last (103.0).
Orlando should find points easier to come by tonight given the Nets’ defensive struggles, but it’s still hard to imagine the Magic keeping up with the high-octane Brooklyn offense.
The Nets have improved to 24th on the season in defensive rating, yielding 111.5 points per 100 possessions. That’s still bad in the grand scheme of things, but they have improved on that end of the floor over the course of their recent stretch.
If the Nets can find a way to slow Vucevic, the Magic don’t really have anybody else capable of picking up the extra slack. Fournier has had his moments, but consistency has never been his strong suit. Assuming Harden and Irving are on point offensively, the Nets should simply overwhelm the Magic in this one.
The 8.5-point spread is a big one, but I like Brooklyn to cover at home tonight.
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