By John Denton
Nov. 1, 2017
MEMPHIS – With many wondering whether or not the Orlando Magic can sustain the impressive play and pace that has allowed them to become an early-season surprise, head coach Frank Vogel has instead trained his focus elsewhere.
Ever the coach, Vogel thinks the Magic are just getting started with their development and still have plenty of room to improve as the season progresses.
On Wednesday night, the Magic showed a distinct improvement in being able to grit out a close game against the NBA’s best defense and win in a place that has been a house of horrors for them for years.
Down as much as 11 points early on and unable to sustain much all night against the rugged Memphis Grizzlies, the Magic got a clutch, go-ahead 3-pointer from Aaron Gordon with 51 seconds to play. That shot, another strong effort from Evan Fournier and some good fortune down the stretch allowed Orlando to defeat Memphis 101-99 at FedEx Forum.
Orlando improved to 6-2 – their best start since posting a similar record to open the 2009-10 season. Also, the Magic won in Memphis for just the third time in franchise history. It’s their first win in West Tennessee since Jan. 23, 2008.
Memphis, which came into the game atop the Western Conference, fell to 5-3. Tyreke Evans scored 32 for the Grizzlies, while Marc Gasol chipped in 22.
Fournier scored 22 points, grabbed eight rebounds and drilled four of seven 3-pointers. Gordon scored 19 points and had two threes, while Terrence Ross added 15 points and two more threes.
Orlando hit 50.7 percent of its field goals and 13 of 29 3-pointers. Memphis made 47.6 percent of its shots and 10 of 30 threes.
The final minute of the game saw some wild swings and errors on both sides. Gasol scored on a driving layup with 64 seconds to play to put Memphis up 99-97. Seconds later, Gordon drilled a corner 3-pointer – off a brilliant feed from Fournier – that gave the Magic a 100-99 lead. The teams then traded turnovers on the next four possessions – two from Orlando’s Terrence Ross and two by the Grizzlies.
Orlando avoided potential daggers in the final 16 seconds to play when Mario Chalmers and Dillon Brooks misfired on open 3-point shots that would have put Memphis into the lead.
Vogel, who is in his second season in Orlando and still steamed by last year’s 29-53 finish, believes that the Magic are just scratching the surface of their potential. The Magic came into Wednesday ranked first in the NBA in 3-point shooting (44.1), second in scoring (116.9 ppg.) and second in overall field goal accuracy (48.7 percent). Meanwhile, the Grizzlies have been able to win despite ranking just 24th in scoring (100.6 ppg.), 26th in field goal percentage (42.7 percent) and 24th in 3-point accuracy (33.2 percent). He thinks his team can be among the elite in the Easter Conference … as long as they continue to improve on the things that they are already doing well.
“Personally, I think we can improve. On the offensive end, we’re still having too many one-pass possessions, no-pass possessions, still too many forces at the rim, still not crashing enough and not taking care of the basketball enough. I think there is still a lot of room for improvement on that end. No, we’re not going to shoot that well every night and we’re going to play tough defensive groups and games where we’re undermanned because of injury, but there are still things that we can improve upon. That’s what I’m challenging our guys with – not can we sustain it, but can we keep improving with every game that we’re playing.’’
Orlando lost point guard D.J. Augustin, who was starting in place of the injured Elfrid Payton, in the second. Augustin sprinted for an easy, fast break layup with 3 minutes left in the second quarter, but upon landing he immediately grabbed at his hip and went down to the floor. Rather than foul to stop the action, Orlando played out the next possession five against four and gave up two offensive rebounds before getting possession that allowed them to call timeout.
Augustin, who has filled in admirably for Payton, did not return because of a strained left hamstring. Orlando played the rest of the game with Shelvin Mack and Jonathon Simmons at point guard – a rotation that could play out in the next game if Payton can’t return. Augustin is sure to miss one game and could be out for a matter of weeks if the strain is severe.
Payton missed his sixth consecutive game because of a strained left hamstring, but he reported making progress with the injury and might play as soon as Friday. Memphis’ Mike Conley sat out of the game because of lingering pain in his Achilles’ tendon – an injury that Memphis coach David Fizdale said never would have kept the point guard out if it were later in the season.
Orlando will play its first game at the Amway Center in a week when it hosts the Chicago Bulls on Friday. It will be the start of a three-game home stand with games coming up against Boston (Sunday) and New York (Nov. 8) before the Magic head out for their first West Coast trip of the season. Orlando is 3-0 at home, beating Miami, Brooklyn and San Antonio at the Amway Center thus far.
Just as they did at the end of the first half, Orlando closed the third period with an impressive surge to gain control. Once down 73-68, Orlando mustered a game-turning 13-1 surge. Five different players scored during the run, including Marreese Speights – the hero from Monday’s win in New Orleans. Speights came in with 1:19 left in the third period and drilled a 3-pointer just 14 seconds later. That shot and the run gave the Magic an 81-75 lead to take into the fourth period.
Orlando and Memphis were tied at 54 at intermission, but that was after a downright bizarre first 24 minutes of the game. The Magic led 14-5 right out of the gates and seemed poised to run away from a Memphis team clearly missing Conley. However, Orlando’s reserves – which have played so well most of the season – got outplayed late in the first quarter and early in the second to put the Magic in a hole as large as 11 points.
As has been the case all season, Fournier was steady throughout and carried the offense in the first half. He had the game’s first six points on consecutive 3-pointers – extending his streak to 33 games with at least one three – and he had 17 points by halftime. Playing the most efficient basketball of his career, Fournier drilled seven of nine shots and three of four 3-pointers in his first 19 minutes of play to keep Orlando in the game.
Turnovers were a huge problem in the first half for the Magic and they played a big role in getting the Grizzlies back into the game. Orlando turned the ball over five times in the first and second quarters, miscues that led to 17 points for Memphis. Evans, long a top defensive guard in the NBA, had 18 points, two assists and a steal in the first half.
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