ORLANDO, Fla. — Magic point guard Markelle Fultz dribbled to his left, using a screen from teammate Khem Birch to get clear of Warriors guard Alec Burks. When Warriors center Willie Cauley-Stein switched off the screen, Fultz quickly shifted his weight, dribbled to his left and took a step back to create space from the 7-foot defender.
Fultz rose up along the baseline and released a high-arching shot toward the rim that found its mark.
The next time down the floor, Fultz attacked the defense off the dribble. Warriors forward Draymond Green — Golden State’s best defensive player — tried to knock the ball away from Fultz as he dribbled near the wing, but Fultz quickly spun to his right. He hesitated slightly, then muscled his way into the lane, leaned into Green, absorbed the contact and converted the layup.
The Magic never trailed again.
Fultz started strong and finished stronger Sunday against Golden State as he continues to improve and expand his role with the offense.
The Magic point guard delivered five points and four assists during his first stint of playing time, then made his final four shots — including the go-ahead layup with 2:22 remaining — to help close out the 100-96 victory at Amway Center.
“Every game I get out there I feel comfortable,” Fultz said. “I’m getting more and more confident every time I step out there (on the floor). Those are just the plays I’ve got to step up and make with guys being out, just being aggressive and being a play-maker. If I see a seam (to) just go and score or get my teammates open, I’m going to go do that.”
On a play midway through the fourth quarter, Fultz drove at Cauley-Stein and looked like he was going to challenge the Warriors center. Instead, just before he was about to jump, Fultz delivered a no-look pass to a cutting Jonathan Isaac, who finished off the sequence with an easy two-handed dunk.
Fultz finished with 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting and tied a season-high with nine assists without a turnover. It was the sixth time this season he’s finished a game with no turnovers.
But it may have been the shots he didn’t make that turned out to be the most important. After missing all four of his tries in the third quarter (making him 2-of-8 at that point), Fultz regrouped and told himself to “stay aggressive.”
His eight fourth-quarter points, which were a season-high, proved crucial to the victory.
“It’s not like I’m shooting bad shots or shooting shots that I can’t make. I’m getting to where I want. I’m just missing easy ones,” he said. “It’s more so not getting frustrated with myself. There were a couple of games early (in the season) I was pretty hard on myself when I was missing easy ones. And again, it’s Coach (Steve Clifford) talking to me, it’s coach Hetz (Steve Hetzel) talking to me, just saying, ‘You’re doing what you’re supposed to do.’ In order for us to go where we want to go, I’m going to have to do stuff like that.
“All the great ones keep shooting, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
What Fultz will do Tuesday is play in his 20th game of the season when the Magic face the Wizards at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.
Because of injuries, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft has never played more than 19 games in a season.
Now he’ll reach yet another milestone in a season that’s been filled with them. More significantly, the Baltimore native will hit that milestone playing in his backyard in front of family and friends, and against the team he grew up rooting for.
“It’s going to feel like I’m home. I haven’t been to D.C. in a minute, so I can’t wait to go back,” he said.
For Fultz, it’s also another step in his NBA journey, but not one that will define him, his season or his career. Having the game taken away from him for essentially two years, he’s thankful for each day he gets to play basketball.
“It’s a blessing. Me, I’ve got goals. One of my goals is just to get this far,” he said. “I’m just marking them off my calendar. Every time I get another chance to go out there and play is just a blessing. To be able to play this many games, it feels good. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing, focusing every day and taking care of my body and doing all the things I need to do to stay on the floor.”
The Magic certainly like having him on the floor.
Fultz began the season under a minutes restriction of 24 to 25 a game as the team closely monitored his physical progress, mostly a Thoracic Outlet Syndrome issue in his shoulder. That restriction seems to have eased lately. Fultz has averaged 29.3 minutes his past five games and hit a season-high 30 minutes against Golden State.
Isaac, who has fought through his own injury-related adversity, continues to be impressed by Fultz’s dedication and perseverance.
“He’s tough. He’s tough as nails. Mentally tough. Strong guy,” Isaac said. “He just continues to put it together. From the circumstances he’s been through, his ability to just take it one day at a time and bounce back is ridiculous. It is very commendable.”
Tuesday’s game tips off at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on Fox Sports Florida. The Magic, behind 30 points from Nikola Vucevic, beat the Wizards 125-121 when the teams met Nov. 17 in Orlando.
©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194):