By John Denton
Oct. 21, 2017
ORLANDO – A victim of so many lopsided losses, fourth-quarter collapses and nightly disappointments in his five-plus year career with the Orlando Magic, Nikola Vucevic savored every second of what felt like a landmark moment on Saturday night.
Orlando didn’t just beat the Cleveland Cavaliers – something it hadn’t done since November of 2012 – it led from start to finish, once held a commanding 37-point advantage and coasted home for a 114-93 victory. Also, it was the Magic’s first defeat of a LeBron James-led team in 18 games and the first time that Vucevic bested the four-time MVP in his NBA career.
On this night, the delight wasn’t as much about the lopsided final result as it was about how the Magic (2-1) played from start to finish. They shrugged off the loss of two injured starters and paid no attention to an ugly defeat a night earlier. They shared the ball to find open teammates, they shot 3-pointers fearlessly and they even withstood the pressure of a James-fueled Cleveland run in the third quarter.
The completeness of it all gave Vucevic – who had 23 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots – a moment of pause, not to mention hope for the future.
“This game has lots and lots of positives,’’ Vucevic said. “It had, maybe, the most positives that we’ve had around here in a long time.’’
Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the team, and many others on the Magic have vowed since training camp that this team is vastly different than the ones before that so often stumbled, was susceptible to long losing streaks and regularly failed to build on minor successes. This team, Vucevic vowed, is all about playing the right way and playing together and because of that he is very encouraged with the direction the Magic are headed.
“It’s still early, only three games, but in two of those games we’ve been able to build the lead and the other team made a run and we hung on,’’ said Vucevic, proudly referencing Orlando’s defeats of Miami and Cleveland. “We expected the Cavs to make a run because they are one of the best teams in the league and they have the best player in the world, but we were able to sustain it because we went back to playing our way. It was just a great team effort.’’
Orlando seemingly had every reason to not be excited about Saturday’s game what with Aaron Gordon (ankle sprain) and Elfrid Payton (hamstring strain) out injured, 20-year-old Jonathan Issac forced to guard James and the Magic reeling from a loss in Brooklyn a night earlier. Not a bit of that mattered on Saturday as Vucevic – fresh off a career-best 41-point effort a night earlier – scored the game’s first five points and Orlando had a lead as large as 20 points before the first quarter was complete. Predictably, Cleveland charged back in the third quarter to get within seven, but Orlando counterpunched with a 12-0 spurt of its own to all but seal the victory.
Of course, things weren’t always like that in the past and veteran point guard D.J. Augustin – who had 12 points, 10 assists and three 3-pointers in place of Payton – said as much afterward. He admitted to being highly impressed with the Magic’s response in the face of overwhelming pressure on Saturday night.
“Last year, we probably would have crumbled and let them get the lead back,’’ said Augustin, who even banked in a 3-pointer on this charmed night for the Magic. “But this year, we stayed composed, stayed calm and kept doing what we knew we could do.’’
Magic head coach Frank Vogel, who like Vucevic suffered greatly throughout Orlando’s disappointing 29-53 finish last year, likes the grit and stubbornness that this team has shown already in sticking to its preferred style of play. Orlando wants to push the pace, attack early if possible and always consider the open man as the go-to player in the offense.
“We’re starting to play offensively consistently the right way in terms of not settling and understanding that we want to attack early and the ball is really hopping,’’ Vogel gushed. “We’re scoring the ball well and shooting the ball well as a result of the ball movement and the quality of our shots.’’
From there, Vogel talked about the Magic not getting too high over winning in Cleveland – just as they clearly didn’t get too low about losing in Brooklyn a night earlier. Still, he is seeing encouraging signs that there’s a toughness and a resiliency to this Magic team. Cleveland had to have seen that too on Saturday, and Vogel’s hope is that it will carry over to Tuesday against a Nets team that Magic desperately want to pay back for handing them their only loss.
“Again, it’s too early to make any big judgements about this (team), but it’s an early positive sign for us,’’ Vogel said of his new-look Magic. “With how we’re playing offensively and moving the basketball, we’re facilitating everything and everybody feels good about our chemistry. Everybody is playing with the basketball the right way, thinking extra pass and playing for each other. That’s how chemistry is established.’’
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