Tuesday’s meeting between the Orlando Magic and the host Oklahoma City Thunder was supposed to be an early-season matchup of the top two picks in June’s NBA draft.
The Magic’s Paolo Banchero, the No. 1 overall pick, has lived up to the hype, averaging 22.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists in his first seven games.
The Thunder’s Chet Holmgren’s season was over before it began, after he suffered a Lisfranc injury to his right foot that required season-ending surgery.
But there’s still plenty of intrigue around Tuesday’s game.
Without Holmgren and Josh Giddey, the sixth pick from last year’s draft who has missed the last three games with a sprained ankle, Oklahoma City has strung together an improbable three-game winning streak.
The streak started with a win over the Los Angeles Clippers where the Thunder shot just 13.3 percent (4 of 30) from behind the 3-point line. It continued with another home win over the Clippers where Oklahoma City didn’t attempt a free throw until nearly two minutes had passed in the fourth quarter.
Then there was Saturday, when the Thunder trailed the Dallas Mavericks by 16 with four minutes left in regulation before coming back to force overtime and then win 117-111.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, it was just the second time in the last 25 years — a span of nearly 10,000 such games to that point — where a team trailed by 16 or more points in the final four minutes of the fourth and came back to win.
There’s been plenty of reasons why Oklahoma City has been able to win each of those games, but the consistent thread through each is the improvement — especially on the defensive end — from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
During the streak, Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 31.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 2.7 steals per game. He’s shooting 50 percent from the floor and has made all 19 of his free throws.
“You can start to take it for granted because he’s doing it almost every night,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said.
In Saturday’s win, Gilgeous-Alexander had season highs of 38 points on 15-of-27 shooting and nine assists. The Thunder outscored Dallas by 20 with him on the floor.
“I’m still missing more than I like, as crazy as it sounds,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “A lot of easy stuff at the rim, defensive assignments.”
While Oklahoma City comes in on a bit of a roll, the Magic have won just one of their first seven games, including Sunday’s 114-105 loss in Dallas.
After scoring 20 or more points in each of his first six games, Banchero was held to just 18 on 6-of-20 shooting against the Mavericks.
But while Banchero’s career is off to a strong start overall, Orlando’s backcourt has been a major concern.
Jalen Suggs has missed the last five games with an ankle injury while Cole Anthony, a point guard like Suggs, has missed the last two.
“Teams are understanding we’re down some guards so they’re picking up full-court,” Magic coach Jamahl Mosley said. “It gives these guys great experience understanding how they can handle pressure.”
Tuesday’s game is the last of six road games in the first eight for Orlando before it begins a seven-game homestand Thursday.
–Field Level Media