By John Denton
April 6, 2017
ORLANDO – Out of nowhere on Thursday, as the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets were slogging through a relatively meaningless April game, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton decided to put on an impromptu slam-dunk contest and breathe some life into the night.
It was only fitting that on a night when newly enshrined Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady was sitting courtside that Payton and Gordon teamed up for an off-the-backboard pass and dunk – similar to the one McGrady pulled off in the NBA All-Star Game back in 2002.
Payton had 22 points and Gordon scored 21 – many of them coming off dunks set up his point guard’s 11 assists – as the Magic played with plenty of fire in the second half and defeated Brooklyn 115-107 at the Amway Center.
The highlight of the night came in the third period when Payton led the fastbreak and threw the ball hard enough off the backboard that it caromed to the high-flying Gordon for a thunderous dunk. The young and promising duo hooked up for three alley-oop dunks in the third quarter alone and five times in the game to put the Magic comfortably ahead.
“Never before in a game, so that was the first time, but we talked about it before. We finally got a chance tonight to do it,’’ Payton said of his off-the-backboard assist to Gordon. “I’ve seen the clips of (McGrady’s dunk).’’
Payton, who has five triple-doubles since the all-star break, had 22 points and five rebounds to go with his 11 assists. Gordon made nine of 15 field goals and had six rebounds to go with his 21 points. Gordon spent nearly an hour after the game getting up extra shots, but Magic coach Frank Vogel had plenty to say for the way he and Payton have grown their games over the second half of this season.
“It’s neat when you have guys who are such close friends off the basketball court have the on-the-court chemistry that those two have. That’s a fun thing to be a part of,’’ Vogel said. “It’s been a tough year for us in the win/loss column, but those two guys have really developed in the second half of the season. Each game they’re getting a little bit better and a little more confident. They were both terrific tonight.’’
Orlando (28-51) snapped a season-worst five-game losing streak and exacted some revenge on the Nets (19-60), which defeated the Magic in Brooklyn on Saturday night. The victory also allowed the Magic to win the season series, 2-1.
The Nets, owners of the NBA’s worst record most of the season, saw their three-game winning streak come to an end. Brooklyn impressively scored 141 points in a whipping of Philadelphia on Monday.
Magic guard Jodie Meeks, a surprise starter in place of Evan Fournier (sore wrist), scored 20 points – 18 of them coming in the third quarter. Meeks’ outburst accounted for the most points scored by a Magic player in a quarter this season.
“Once I got one to go, after that I feel like I can make anything,’’ Meeks said. “The biggest thing is pulled away from there and weren’t just trading baskets. From there, luckily we got the win.’’
Center Nikola Vucevic chipped in 18 points, 12 rebounds and five assists in another stellar effort against Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez (10 points and five rebounds).
Jeremy Lin scored 32 points and made five 3-pointers. Caris LaVert scored 20 for the Nets.
In the playoffs five of the past six years while coaching the Indiana Pacers, Vogel had a sense of dread come over him recently when his Magic approached the final stretch of games and were already eliminated from postseason contention. Quietly, Vogel wondered if his team would check out mentally down the stretch.
Much to Vogel’s surprise, however, his Magic were still entirely engaged and intent on working to salvage some kind of success from an otherwise sour season. Thursday’s game was yet another example of that as Payton, Gordon, Vucevic and Meeks played extremely well to ensure another victory.
“Coming into it, as we approached this last month or so and we kind of knew that we were out of it, I thought it was going to be difficult. To our guys’ credit, it hasn’t been. It’s actually been a healthy, pure attitude toward these games, toward improvement and development and trying to build something habit-wise toward next year. These guys have been very engaged, so I have to credit our guys for that.’’
Fournier, who has posted career highs in scoring (17.2 ppg.), rebounding (3.1 rpg.) and assists (3.0 apg.), was held out of action on Thursday with a right wrist injury that has bothered him part of last season and most of this season. Fournier feels his inability to fully “snap’’ his wrist on his jump shot is one reason why his accuracy from the floor (43.8 percent), 3-point line (35 percent) and free throw stripe (80.1 percent) has tumbled this season. Last season, Fournier was one of just five qualifying players in the NBA to shoot at least 45 percent from the floor (46.2 percent), 40 percent from 3-point range (40 percent) and 80 percent from the free throw line (83.6 percent).
Resting Fournier allowed Magic newcomers Patricio Garino and Marcus Georges-Hunt to make their Amway Center debuts. Garino, a native of Argentina and a high school graduate at nearby Montverde Academy, dreamed of this night since attending his first NBA game at the Amway Center some seven years ago. Georges-Hunt finished with eight points, seven rebounds and a steal in 20 minutes, while a nervous Garino missed all four of his shots in 14 minutes.
“Playing at the Amway Center was something I’ve been looking forward to for a long while. With me having a bunch of family and friends here, I think they could tell I was a little anxious and nervous out there,’’ said Garino, who had his host family from Montverde Academy in attendance. “But I take the most positives out of this.’’
The Magic will be back at the Amway Center on Saturday night to face the Indiana Pacers. Start time for the game is 6 p.m. – an hour earlier than normal – and gates will open to fans at 4:30 p.m.
After that, only two games remain – Monday in Chicago and Wednesday against the Detroit Pistons at the Amway Center. The regular-season finale will tip off at 8 p.m.
Stuck in a 50-all tie at the half, the Magic launched a two-pronged attack on the Nets in the third quarter to break the game open. Orlando led by as much as 17 in the third period after Meeks scored 13 consecutive Magic points at one point. Gordon and Payton took over from there, connecting on three alley-oops to help the Magic grab an 86-71 lead after three periods.
“Sometimes I feel like I just have to get (the ball) anywhere in the vicinity and he’s going to go and get it,’’ Payton said of his lobs to Gordon. “He’s an amazing athlete.’’
Meeks was scoreless in the first half after missing both of his shots. But his offensive game came alive in the third period when he scored 18 points – the most by any Magic player in a quarter this season. He made seven of nine shots and four of six 3-pointers in the period to jump-start the offense.
“I feel like if I make one, I can make a lot, but I guess I got a little carried away by shooting that three from 35 feet,’’ Meeks said. “But it was a good win and my teammates did a good job of trying to find me and setting me up with screens.’’
Payton and Gordon have been setting one another up for years and they have an alley-oop history that stretches all the way back to when they were teenagers and preparing to play in the FIBA U-19 Championships for USA Basketball. Payton feels like their chemistry has grown even more late this season as they’ve tried to take more ownership of the offense with their deadly lob game.
“It’s something that is growing with us and we want it to keep growing through the summer,’’ Payton said of the chemistry he has with Gordon. “We’re definitely trying to make an imprint and establish a way that we’re going to play. We’re finding an identity and we’ve got to just continue to get that defensive identity down.’’
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