The Orlando Magic beat the Los Angeles Lakers late last week in what was a satisfying victory for the team, even if the Lakers continue to nosedive. Yes, it is always nice to beat a franchise as storied as the purple and gold. In fact, victory becomes all the sweeter when you consider Orlando’s two greatest-ever players both swapped the pinstriped blue for the bright Hollywood lights. But this night was not about Shaquille O’Neal or Dwight Howard or what has gone before, it was about where this team can be if performances like this become the norm. It looked very exciting indeed.
Tobias Harris has had his critics this season after stumbling out of the blocks. Injury was a large factor here and the Orlando fans never doubted his ability, but a frustration had begun to set in among them after he had teased the league late last year with some brilliant performances. On Friday night though, up against a big name opponent, even if they were devoid of any really big players themselves, Harris decided to once again show what he was capable of. His 28 points pretty much carried the Magic to victory, but it was the 20 boards he collected which were arguably the more impressive. Averaging 7.9 rebounds before the game, there was a work rate and intensity to his game that had been missing this season and it was a great sight to watch unfold. All NBA players have ridiculous talent, they wouldn’t be in the league if they didn’t, but when you can see a player really working on the court as well and not just relying on the talent they have, then that player begins to ascend in the league. It is too early to say Harris is going to the very top, but it was a performance that everybody from the front office to the fans in the nosebleed seating (and here in Ireland!) will have taken great enjoyment in witnessing.
The night wasn’t all about Harris, though, and that is a real positive. The victory was build on team basketball and players stepping up, with both Arron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson both scoring more than 20 points, too. Rookie Victor Oladipo, who some believe is being eclipsed by Trey Burke of the Utah Jazz recently, also chipped in with 15 points and 12 rebounds. These balanced numbers are what Magic fans want to see more of from the former Indiana University man. When you consider he was essentially the fourth option on the night in terms of where the scoring and general offense were coming from, it makes you realize that this Magic outfit have many ways in which they can hurt you. All the great teams have this quality, and while this is no great team, performances like this are what help make this organisation better and more relevant again.
A quick word on the Lakers too. They weren’t awful on the night, they just ran into a hungrier and more athletic side. They also seemed out of ideas and lacking an identity, something which is not new since Kobe Bryant once again was downed by injury. An idea for the Lakers, although it will never happen, would be to do as the Magic are doing and embrace the rebuild job. Of course L.A. can and will grab a top-tier player this summer to come and play for them, thus accelerating their rebuild greatly. But people forget that the Magic can also go out and try to convince an All-Star to come and join them in Orlando. Yes, Los Angeles is arguably the top place a free agent can hope to land in terms of location, but Orlando is no Milwaukee or Charlotte itself. High level players will want to play for the Magic and when you couple that with the exciting youth that was on display against the Lakers, it bodes very well for the future.
Winning against Los Angeles was nice and in some ways validated what the Magic are doing right now. Both are pretty poor teams, but the Magic realize this, and are actively striving to improve and get better on the court. The Lakers continue to put off the dreaded rebuild, and in doing so continue to look lost on the court. It may yet still work out for the Lakers, it usually does, and they could get a superstar to come play for them next year alongside Kobe Bryant. But this match highlighted the fact that Orlando aren’t doing all that badly themselves, even if this can be hard to see through all the losses that the team have endured recently. Looking at the big picture though, this was a win that gave a glimpse into a future where the playoffs are once more a given rather than a pipe dream. All this positively, and we didn’t even speak about the equally promising Maurice Harkless and Nikola Vucevic. There is a depth to this team that is growing silently and is being overlooked by most right now, but that is for another day.