By John Denton
Oct. 24, 2017
ORLANDO – If their defeat of Orlando last Friday and two victories thus far didn’t speak to it already, head coach Frank Vogel reminded his Magic of this fact in the lead up to tonight’s game at the Amway Center: The Brooklyn Nets aren’t the same woeful team they were last season.
The Nets had the NBA’s worst record in 2016-17 at 20-62 and they didn’t even get the top pick in the June NBA Draft that they rightfully earned because it belonged to the Boston Celtics via a trade from years earlier. Brooklyn opened this season with the double-whammy of giving up 140 points and losing standout guard Jeremy Lin to an injury in an opening defeat in Indiana. Since then, however, Brooklyn has defeated the Magic and the Atlanta Hawks to move to 2-1 on the season.
They, like the 2-1 Magic, have been one of the NBA’s early-season surprise teams thus far. Vogel, however, isn’t surprised because of how hard Brooklyn plays on a nightly basis and how it remade its roster with the trade for point guard D’Angelo Russell.
“Brooklyn’s for real this year,’’ Vogel insisted. “It’s a completely different team, in my mind. They are a hard-charging team that is leading the league in points at (124.3) points per game, which is very, very impressive. We got a first-hand look at how difficult they are to guard the other night and we’ll have to put our defensive hard hats on to win. This is not going to be an easy game.’’
The Nets showed that last Friday, handing Orlando its lone loss of the season thus far. The Magic have been especially impressive in wins against Miami and Cleveland, but the loss to the Nets still sits with them because of the manner in which it took place. Brooklyn burned the Magic defense for 60 points in the paint, 16 offensive rebounds and 25 free throw makes. Orlando had difficulty keeping the Nets out of the paint, off the glass and off the free throw lane – hustle plays that it has vowed to make on its own this season.
“It’s always good (facing a team that they played recently) because we know what to expect from them even more now,’’ Magic shooting guard Terrence Ross said. “We know what we need to do to get better and what we have to do to get this win against them. We gave away too many offensive rebounds. They play with a lot of pace and get up and down really fast, but our whole thing is limit them to one shot and getting back in transition. That’s what we worked on (Monday in practice) and that’s going to help us going into this game.’’
Orlando should get one of its best rebounders, power forward Aaron Gordon, back tonight against the Nets. Gordon, who suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter of the opening-night win against Miami, missed the past two games because of lingering pain. Gordon, the Magic’s leading scorer in the preseason, practiced on Monday and is expected to be back in the starting lineup tonight.
Orlando will be without point guard Elfrid Payton once again because of a strained left hamstring. Payton suffered the injury on Friday against Brooklyn and hasn’t played since. Veteran guard D.J. Augustin played well in relief on Saturday in Cleveland (12 points, 10 assists and three 3-pointers) and will start at point guard again tonight.
Orlando is hoping to ride another stellar shooting night from center Nikola Vucevic, who is celebrating his 27th birthday today. Vucevic, who has a long history of playing well against the Nets, scored a career-best 41 points last Friday in Brooklyn. He repeatedly burned centers Timofey Mozgov and Jarrett Allen for six 3-pointers in eight attempts and he was 17 of 22 overall from the floor in the dominant performance.
The Magic tried using rookie Jonathan Isaac and Mario Hezonja at power forward in place of Gordon last Friday, but both had trouble staying on the court because of foul trouble. Their difficulties led to Brooklyn getting 35 free throw attempts – something that can’t happen again if the Magic are going to win tonight against the Nets.
“(D’Angelo) Russell has given (Brooklyn) a different dynamic, DeMarre Carroll is really playing at a high level, (Allen) Crabbe gives them shooting, their young players like (Caris) LeVert are really attacking the lane and (Trevor) Booker really impacts the game,’’ Vogel raved. “They’re a good basketball team. This is not the team that was 30th in the league last year. They’re not and they’re much-improved. They are for real this year.’’
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