By John Denton
Oct. 19, 2017
ORLANDO – Their first big test passed thanks in large part to contributions from several players on the roster and some clutch, fourth-quarter play from Evan Fournier, the Orlando Magic must now take their act on the road and thrive in a game that some consider to be an early-season, must-win scenario.
When the Magic beat the rival Miami Heat 116-109 on Wednesday at the Amway Center, it gave them their first season-opening victory since 2012 and it stoked their beliefs that things are headed in the right direction. To keep those positive vibes flowing, the Magic (1-0) now must head into Brooklyn and defeat a Nets team that is reeling from the loss of guard Jeremy Lin to a season-ending knee injury.
“This is a huge game for us,’’ said Magic point guard Elfrid Payton, who delivered a fiery, fourth-quarter pep talk to his team in Wednesday’s win. “Brooklyn is very talented, but we feel like if we can get this game we will be taking another big step. You want to get out to a good start every year and we definitely have a good chance of that. We’re feeling good about what’s going on and we have to keep it going.’’
Like Payton, Magic head coach Frank Vogel is placing a tremendous amount of importance on Friday’s game against the 0-1 Nets, who were 140-131 losers in Indiana on Wednesday. First, Vogel knows that the Magic must greatly improve a road record that saw them go just 13-28 away from home last season. Also, possibly factoring into Vogel’s thought process is the fact that the Magic play LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Cleveland on Saturday. The Magic have had their fits with the Cavs over the last five seasons, and playing for a second time in as many nights will only make the challenge of winning in Cleveland even more daunting.
Foremost in Vogel’s thinking, however, is wanting to see the Magic play once again with consistency, urgency and toughness on Friday.
“It’s another step,’’ stressed Vogel, who has repeatedly implored his team to work to build “winning habits’’ if it wants to be in contention this season. “We’re 0-0 on the road this year. We want to play .500-or-better basketball on the road if we want to make the playoffs, and it starts with this game in Brooklyn. We can’t feel too good about this (Miami win) and we have to go in there hungry and show the same level of fight that we exhibited (against Miami). We’ve got to show that again in Brooklyn.’’
Vogel dissected the opening defeat of Miami with Magic players on Thursday in a film session, pointing out the many high points in building a three-point halftime lead and an advantage that swelled to as much as 17 points in the fourth quarter. But he also showed the squad the many times when it forced shots, lost the pace that it wants to play with and blew defensive assignments.
Those gaffes allowed the Heat to get within 105-103 inside the final three minutes, but they could never overtake Orlando thanks to Fournier having a hand in nine straight points down the stretch. He made a straight-on 3-pointer off two screens, passed out perfectly to Nikola Vucevic for an open jump shot and twice finished over the outstretched arms of Miami shot-blocker Hassan Whiteside.
On Thursday, Vogel surmised that the game should have never come down to Fournier’s clutch play at the end.
“We want to be a team where the open man is the go-to guy and the pass is the thing that made the whole game easy for us,’’ Vogel said. “We had too many possessions that we left on the floor (with forced shots). We had 22 assists and shot 48 percent from the field, but to me it should have looked like 30 assists and 55 percent from the field. We forced it a little too much, but guys are trying to play the right way and make their reads. It’s encouraging to me about what we can be.’’
The Magic think they can be winners now after learning from the pain of the past. So often in seasons prior, Orlando would have lost a game like Wednesday’s where it played well most of the night and built a large lead only to see it slip away in the fourth quarter. This time around, Payton called the team together as the lead was shrinking and demanded that it get back to doing what made it successful earlier in the game.
“It was just me wanting to win, learning from my mistakes from last year and from me just kind of pressing it and making sure that we knew, `This is a chance for us to take a step and let’s do it!’’’ Payton said of his pep talk. “They were starting to make a run and it was just about us trying to take a step. I brought it up that in the past we gave up leads. I just wanted us to take a step and be a better team.’’
They certainly seemed better on a night when six Magic players scored in double figures and defensively they limited Miami to 43.1 percent shooting and eight-of-30 accuracy from 3-point range. Reserves Jonathan Isaac (four points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots), Jonathon Simmons (12 points), Bismack Biyombo (nine points, five rebounds and two blocks) were big in helping the Magic build the double-digit lead and Fournier (23 points, three assists and three 3-pointers), Vucevic (19 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks) and Payton (13 points, nine assists and three steals) were key in helping them hold it.
“It was a good first game, but there were a lot of bad things as well,’’ Fournier said afterward. “We’ve got to learn from it. … It was good that we won, but I wish we would have killed the game when we were up 17. We were playing really, really good ball. It was a mix of everything (with the struggles) and maybe we were too confident. But when you’re up 17, you’ve got to kill the game.’’
Now, the Magic want to kill any chances that Brooklyn has of winning on Friday night with another inspired effort on both ends of the floor. Vogel said that he liked the fact that his players were not happy with how they closed on Wednesday and they are hungry to do better in Brooklyn.
“Everything about that fourth quarter was a good lesson for us when we’re playing with a lead,’’ Vogel said. “There was a lot to learn from and that was a big part of the film session. When you can learn lessons, clean it up and still get the win, those are good days. … A win is a win, and it’s not easy to win in this league, so we’re feeling good about it.’’
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