By John Denton
Oct. 23, 2017
ORLANDO – It’s a small sample size for sure, but the Orlando Magic have incredibly turned a known weakness into a strength and they needed just three games to accomplish a couple of things that no other team in franchise history has done before.
Fresh off a dismantling of the Cleveland Cavaliers – a game that saw them lead by as many as 37 points – the Magic woke up Monday morning as the NBA’s second-most prolific 3-point shooting team. To put that accomplishment into perspective, you must consider how far the Magic (2-1) have come in a short period of time. Why, just last season, when Orlando limped to a disappointing 29-53 record in an ill-fitting system, it ranked 29th in the 30-team NBA in 3-point accuracy. So often, the Magic simply couldn’t keep pace in the three-happy style of the NBA, resulting in numerous lopsided losses.
Fast forward to now and the Magic have made 43 3-pointers in their first three games – good for second in the league behind only Golden State’s 46 (prior to Monday’s games). Orlando’s 48.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc certainly isn’t sustainable all season, but for the time being it does have them in some heady territory at second in the NBA.
Again, the sample size is insanely small when considering that there are still 79 games remaining in the NBA’s marathon-like NBA season. But as the Magic head into their Tuesday showdown against the Brooklyn Nets (2-1) at the Amway Center, they are marveling at the improvement that has been made thus far.
“That’s incredible! Going from the bottom-two to the top-two, that’s unreal,’’ shooting guard Terrence Ross said after Monday’s practice prep. “But it’s kind a testament to (the offseason work) because everybody here has been trying to get their shot right. It’s paying off.’’
Is it ever paying off? The Magic’s much faster pace and their torrid shooting have allowed them to score at least 110 points in each of their three games so far – a first to open the season in the 28-plus year history of the franchise.
And then there’s this: When Orlando hit 18 3-pointers in Brooklyn on Friday and 17 more in the 114-93 defeat of LeBron James and Cleveland on Saturday it proved to the first time in franchise history that the team has made at least 17 threes in consecutive games.
The Dennis Scott/Nick Anderson/Penny Hardaway Magic of the 1990s never did that. Neither did the record-setting Magic teams of Jameer Nelson/J.J. Redick/Rashard Lewis/Ryan Anderson/Mickael Pietrus of 2009-10. But the current edition, one armed with Evan Fournier (eight 3-pointers), Nikola Vucevic (seven 3-pointers), Jonathon Simmons (five 3-pointers), D.J. Augustin (five 3-pointers), Ross (five 3-pointers) and Mario Hezonja (three 3-pointers), have rained in long-distance shots in record numbers so far.
The reasons, Magic head coach Frank Vogel insisted, are because the team has totally bought in to a system of sharing the ball and always believing that the open man is the go-to guy.
While understandably referring to the Magic’s off-the-charts shooting improvement as “premature,’’ Vogel does think his players’ willingness to play for one another has been the driving force behind the 3-point surge. Why, just Saturday night, when Orlando tied a franchise record for threes in a quarter (eight in the first) and made 17 triples against Cleveland, 16 of those long-range baskets came off assists from a teammate.
“Our ball movement, passing and decision-making the first three games have been good,’’ Vogel said. “We’ve been able to reward that passing with some shot-making and hopefully it continues. Obviously, you’re not going to make 17 threes every night, so you just have to make sure that every night you are improving in all areas.’’
Orlando improved in all areas over the summer when it loaded the roster with talented wing players in the NBA Draft and free agency. The additions of players such as Ross (in a trade last February), Jonathan Isaac (the No. 6 pick in the draft), Simmons (free agency), Arron Afflalo (free agency), Marreese Speights (free agency) and Shelvin Mack (free agency) spoke to the team’s full-on commitment to embrace today’s space-and-pace, small-ball style of play in the NBA.
Of course, that wasn’t the case last season when Orlando opened the 2016-17 campaign trying to play two big men – Serge Ibaka and Vucevic – against teams that were often smaller, faster and better shooters. In those first three games of last season, Orlando hit just 22 of 72 3-point attempts and no player on the roster connected on more than four threes.
Too often, a Magic team already with a small margin for error simply couldn’t make up the difference between the points they got from the 3-point line and the much larger amount foes got.
Back to this season, Orlando had as many 3-pointers in Saturday’s first quarter (eight) as Cleveland did total field goals (also eight). Prior to the Cavs making their first three on Saturday, Orlando already had a 27-0 edge in scoring from the arc. It should be noted that Cleveland was the NBA’s second-best 3-point shooting team last season.
The Magic made just eight 3-pointers in its season-opening win against Miami, but Fournier’s triple after the Heat had trimmed a 17-point deficit to two proved to be the biggest basket of the night. Then, came the 35 3-pointers over the next two games.
These days, Orlando’s pace (106.5 possessions per game, sixth in the NBA), passing (26.7 assists per game, second in the NBA) and its ability to pile up the points (117 points per game, fifth in the NBA) theoretically give it a much better chance of matching the league’s high-octane offenses shot for shot.
Mike D’Antoni, the coach of a Houston team that set NBA records last season for 3-point makes and takes in a season, said he can see a scenario where his Rockets ultimately get to where they are averaging 50 3-point attempts a game.
“It’s a tough style to go against if you’re not (making 3-pointers),’’ Vogel said. “So we’re encouraging (3-point shooting) as long as they are open ones. If we can sustain our pace and our ball movement from early on, hopefully we’ll make enough (3-point) shots to win.’’
It’s come as little surprise that Fournier – who came into Monday tied for ninth in the NBA in 3-point makes – has had success from afar and that Augustin – a career 37.2 percent 3-point shooter – has bounced back from a poor season in 2016-17. It’s the expanded range of the 7-foot Vucevic that has caught foes off guard. He missed all three of his 3-point attempts in the opener, but he stuck with it and hit six of eight threes against Brooklyn and one of three tries versus Cleveland. The six made threes was three times the amount he had ever made in a NBA game before and the eight attempts were twice as many as he had ever hoisted.
The seven-year veteran worked hard over the summer to go from being one of the NBA’s best mid-range shooters to a big man who can burn foes from 3-point territory. He had confidence that he could eventually be a solid shooter from afar, but even Vucevic has been surprised by his success so far.
“Eventually, yeah I did (think he could make several 3-pointers in a game), but not this early in the season,’’ said Vucevic, who came into Monday tied for 14th in the NBA in 3-point makes thus far. “It’s a little different for me, shooting that three. But it’s not something totally new. I just had to get the reps in. It’s also kind of a conditioning thing because it’s a further shot and you have to use your legs more and a little more arc is needed. It’s just a conditioning thing, a feel thing and I put a lot of work in. I still do (work on the shot) every day before practice and after and I’m glad to see that it’s paying off. I’m just going to continue to shoot it when my teammates find me.’’
One of Vucevic’s teammates, Aaron Gordon, is expected to play on Tuesday after missing the past two games with a sprained left ankle. Gordon practiced on Monday without limitations and barring a setback he should be in the lineup when the Magic look to avenge Friday’s 126-121 loss to the Nets.
Like Vucevic, Gordon and Simmons worked to build consistency with their 3-point strokes over the summer. Gordon, who was often left open and dared to shoot in his first three NBA seasons, looked much more comfortable from the 3-point line in the preseason and in the opening defeat of Miami.
As for Simmons, he made just 29.4 percent of his 3-point shots last season in San Antonio, but he’s connected on five of nine (55.6 percent) so far in three games with Orlando. Vogel has given him a much greater role and Simmons said he is enjoying the freedom to shoot without fear of being benched following misses. He, too, is happy that the Magic have zoomed up near the top of the NBA in 3-point shooting, but he said he will be more impressed if the team can keep it up over the long haul of the season.
“It’s just the will to win and guys are doing whatever it takes to win games,’’ Simmons said of the Magic’s ball movement to find open shooters. “It’s only three games, so in about 15 more we’ll see where we are in the standings.’’
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