By John Denton
April 12, 2017
ORLANDO – The ease with which the Orlando Magic dominated early on and the poise that they exhibited in the late moments of a stirring defeat of the Detroit Pistons left the victors with downright bizarre, mixed mixed feelings late Wednesday night.
Sure, it was nice to bounce back from an extremely poor performance two nights earlier and close out the disappointing regular season with a victory. But the Magic were also left with plenty of questions sure to nag them all throughout another extended offseason.
What if they had brought the passion and intensity all season that they used in Wednesday’s first quarter to completely overwhelm the Pistons? What if they had mustered the same kind of physicality and grit defensively that they used in holding Detroit to 38.7 percent shooting? And what if the Magic had displayed the same kind of calm under pressure all season that they used on Wednesday night to dispatch the Pistons 113-109 at the sold-out Amway Center?
“I’m done playing basketball and I don’t like that fact. … I’m not excited about not showing up at the gym and (not) playing with these guys, practice and (not) go to the playoffs,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who poured in 32 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked two shots in nearly 35 minutes. “It felt a little more free and a little more rhythmic tonight. Who knows (what the team could have done)? It’s up in the air now.’’
Wednesday’s game was up in the air after the Magic squandered a lead that was large as 21 points in the first quarter and as big as 18 midway through the third period. However, point guard Elfrid Payton swooped in to save the day with Orlando trailing 106-105 inside the final two minutes. Payton had a runner in the lane, a free throw line jumper and a fading, high-degree-of-difficulty shot with 18 seconds remaining to vault Orlando back into the lead. The second Payton basket was set up by a key Mario Hezonja steal of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the final minute.
Payton, who finished with 21 points, 13 assists and five rebounds while turning the ball over just once in 31 minutes, is hopeful that the Magic will be able to build on the progress they made offensively after trading for shooting guard Terrence Ross on Feb. 14. The Magic finished 8-16 after getting Ross into the starting lineup.
“You never know what’s going to happen, but I hope we’re able to keep our guys together,’’ Payton said. “I feel like we built something over these last couple of months and I’d like to see what we could do with a training camp and over a full season. I want to see what we’d do.’’
Playing before a sellout crowd of 19,458 at the Amway Center – the largest home attendance in the Magic’s 28-year history – Orlando (29-53) brought great energy, intensity and focus – the opposite of the approach on Monday in Chicago that resulted in a humbling, 47-point defeat. Most of Wednesday, the Magic seemed poised to rout Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons (37-45) for a third time this season in four meetings. Instead, they squeezed out a narrow victory.
“That was my hope for how the game would go – the starters would have a chance to respond from a couple of poor performances and play well in their last run of the season and then give the game to the young guys and hopefully they would step up and make plays,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. “To see Elfrid have the calm and poise to win the game – put the ball in his hands, go high pick-and-roll and say, `win the game for us, kid’ – that was pretty awesome. So I’m happy with how the game went and pleased we got the `W.’’’
The enthusiastic, noisy crowd got a peek at what the Magic might look like in the future as Gordon dominated on both ends, Payton was in control all night and Hezonja chipped in eight points, a career-best 11 rebounds and two 3-pointers.
Now, here’s the potential downside to the season-ending victory: Orlando’s victory could prove costly when it heads into the NBA’s Draft Lottery on May 16. The Magic and Philadelphia 76ers headed into Wednesday with identical 28-53 records. When the Magic won and the Sixers (28-54) lost in New York, it meant that Philadelphia will go into the lottery with the fourth-best odds at landing the No. 1 pick, while Orlando owns the fifth-best odds at landing the top pick – a spot it has used three times before to nab franchise fixtures Shaquille O’Neal (1992), Chris Webber-traded-for-Penny Hardaway (1993) and Dwight Howard (2004).
Vogel, who has repeatedly stated his disdain for resting healthy players and not playing to win, brushed off talk of how a loss might have been better for the Magic in the long run following the victory.
“(Fourth) and (fifth) is not a big difference, especially in this year’s draft because it’s a deep draft,’’ Vogel said. “You have to compete to win. I believe in that. Karma is (evil) and the basketball gods and caring about the right things and doing the right things – that stuff gets rewarded. We competed to win every year in Indiana and we ended up with Paul George and Myles Turner at 10 and 11 (picks). The Boston Celtics, years ago, competed to lose to try and get Tim Duncan and they didn’t get Tim Duncan. Things happen. I believe that trying to build a winning culture is the most important thing for us.’’
Marcus Georges-Hunt, a call-up from the NBA Development League two weeks ago, hit two free throws with 11.8 seconds to play to secure the Magic victory – much to the delight of the Amway Center faithful. Georges-Hunt had four points in nine minutes.
Franchise fixtures Nikola Vucevic (18 points, 11 rebounds and two 3-pointers in 27 minutes) and Evan Fournier (12 points, three rebounds and two threes in 27 minutes) played well in the game’s first three quarters before getting the final 12 minutes off. Vucevic, the longest-tenured Magic player, wanted Wednesday’s win for Orlando fans who have suffered through five straight non-playoff seasons.
“We appreciate that they came out in such a high number for the last game and supported us,’’ Vucevic said. “(The fans) were really into the game. They were with us the whole year and it was a very tough year for them. We didn’t deliver and we didn’t meet expectations that we had, but they really supported us and came out again (on Wednesday).’’
Detroit got 20 points and 10 assists from point guard Ish Smith and 20 points and three 3-pointers from Caldwell-Pope. Reggie Bullock scored 17 points and made five 3-pointers off the Pistons bench.
Jodie Meeks had 12 points and three 3-pointer off the Magic’s bench.
The Magic wrapped up a disappointing season that they hoped would end the franchise’s postseason drought and end in the playoffs. Orlando won 35 games a season ago and figured it would be among the better teams in the East after hiring Vogel and making a flurry of veteran additions last July. Instead, the team got off to a slow start, battled chemistry and defensive issues throughout and wheezed to the finish line with some unsightly losses. Orlando allowed Indiana to shoot 59.3 percent on Saturday in a 127-112 loss. Things got even worse on Monday in Chicago where the Bulls beat the Magic 122-75 for the most lopsided loss in franchise history.
The sour sensation of that loss clearly weighted on the Magic, who came out much more engaged and determined to put on a show for the big crowd inside the Amway Center.
Up 10 at the half, Orlando pushed the lead out to as much as 18 in the third quarter before seeing Detroit rally again. The Pistons were within six by the start of the fourth and for the first time on the night at 96-94.
Orlando led 59-49 at the half, but that advantage did little to spell out just how dominant it was early in the game. The Magic made 10 of their first 17 shots – five of which were 3-pointers – in building a 15-point lead in the game’s first eight minutes. And when Gordon stripped the ball from Darrun Hilliard near midcourt and converted a hanging layup, the Magic were already ahead 38-17.
Gordon, who has played his best basketball of the season since switching from small forward to power forward, overwhelmed the Pistons with his energy and effort in the first half. He said that it was difficult to enjoy one of his best all-around performances of the season and the victory because of how the Magic fell short this season.
“It’s definitely not what I expected, but expectations are a trap,’’ a philosophical Gordon said. “Expectation leads to disappointment and disappointment (leads) to despair and so on. Coming into next season there’s going to be no expectations. The only thing we can expect to do is continue to progress, continue to grow with the coaching staff and continue to stay present.’’
Do that and maybe, just maybe, the Magic won’t be left with the lingering questions that stemmed from Wednesday’s win and will assuredly haunt them all offseason.
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