With the NBA All-Star break now complete, the push to the playoffs kicks into high gear Friday for the host Orlando Magic and the Dallas Mavericks.
The Magic went into the break with some positive momentum, winning two straight at home -- against Atlanta and Detroit -- after dropping eight of their previous nine. The mini-surge allowed Orlando to hold a three-game lead in the race for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference.
Aaron Gordon, who dazzled at the Slam Dunk Contest during All-Star Weekend, went into the break off of a near-triple-double. He scored 25 points, grabbed nine rebounds and dished out nine assists in the win over Detroit.
"If he plays like he did tonight, then we'll have a chance to make progress," Magic coach Steve Clifford said of Gordon in his postgame news conference. "We're obviously going to have to play better, but if he can play like that, it's a big plus."
Orlando will take offensive production anywhere it can get. The Magic rank No. 29 in the league at 103.9 points per game. They failed to break 100 points over a four-game stretch from Jan. 24 through Feb. 1.
In its wins leading into the break, however, Orlando scored 135 and 116 points.
The Magic's search for offensive consistency ran into some added difficulty last month when injuries sidelined double-figure point-per-game scorers Jonathan Isaac and D.J. Augustin.
Isaac, who was averaging 12.0 points per game at the time of his knee injury sustained on Jan. 1, will be out until at least March. Augustin, however, returned to practice this week and could play on Friday.
Should Augustin return, he will rejoin a backcourt in which Markelle Fultz has recently flourished. Fultz scored 22 points and added 10 assists against Detroit.
"He's playing with more aggressively, which is what we need," Clifford said of Fultz.
Dallas heads into Orlando on Friday having welcomed back its own player returning from injury: All-Star Luka Doncic.
Doncic missed seven games ahead of the break, during which time the Mavericks went 3-4. He returned to lead them in a 130-111 win over Sacramento on Feb. 12, however, recording 33 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
Doncic worked well in concert with post player Kristaps Porzingis against the Kings, the two feeding off one another in screen-and-roll situations. Porzingis scored 27 points and grabbed 13 rebounds.
"You need to have chemistry to be able to win games in this league," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle told reporters at the team's practice Wednesday. "In the Sacramento game, they both scored a lot of points, so perception was it was all good. But it wouldn't be about who's scoring what points: It should be about the chemistry."
Doncic's near-triple-double average of 28.9 points, 9.5 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game had him prominently in the early-season Most Valuable Player discussion. He played in both the Rising Stars and All-Star games last weekend in Chicago.
With its star player back, and with the addition of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who received a buyout from the Charlotte Hornets, Dallas returns to action aiming to improve its standing in the competitive Western Conference race.
The Mavericks are tied with Oklahoma City at 33-22 and would be the No. 7 seed if the playoffs started today.
--Field Level Media