By John Denton
Oct. 27, 2017
ORLANDO – For those still unsure of what to make of an Orlando team that has held stunning leads of 37 and 36 points on powerhouses such as Cleveland and San Antonio, know this about the Magic on the heels of another one-sided victory: They very much believe in what is transpiring and see no reason why they can’t keep it going for the foreseeable future.
Further signs that the Magic truly have something special in the works were there for every one of the 17,337 fans at the Amway Center to see on Friday night. Orlando didn’t just rout the previously undefeated San Antonio Spurs 114-87, it led them by as much as 36 at one point and finished the night off with the most lopsided victory in the 58-game history of the series.
At 4-1, the Magic now own the best record in the Eastern Conference and have already notched victories against Miami, Cleveland, San Antonio and resurgent Brooklyn. The season is still painfully young and the marathon-like schedule is bound to soon grow teeth, but one by one Magic players said late Friday that they have a firm belief that what is happening is very much real and believable.
“We play with a lot of effort and we’re fighting for every possession. If we continue to play like that – and I know it’s early and people are saying, `it’s too early’ – but this is helping us,’’ raved veteran center Bismack Biyombo, who had five points, eight rebounds and two blocks for a Magic defense that smothered the Spurs (4-1) to 33.7 percent shooting. “When we started like this in the preseason, everybody said, `yeah, yeah, it’s still the preseason,’ but as we continue to do it, the conversation changes a little bit. The more we continue to play like this, we’re going to earn our respect.’’
Aaron Gordon, who had 16 points, six rebounds, two assists and two 3-pointers in just 25 minutes of work on Friday, was more succinct when asked what was to make of the Magic’s torrid 4-1 jag to open the season.
“Uhhhhh, it’s means we’re first in the East, right?’’ Gordon asked rhetorically. “That’s what that means.’’
The Magic could dare to be bold and brash on a night when they literally and proverbially ran away from San Antonio from start to finish. The Spurs, one of only two unbeaten teams in the NBA coming into the game, had their only lead of the night at 6-4 and it didn’t last long because of the efficiency that the Magic played with on both ends of the floor. Orlando’s lead progressively swelled as the night went on, rising as high as 14 points in the first quarter, 27 points before halftime and by as much as 36 in the third period. Sure, the Spurs are still without superstar wing Kawhi Leonard and veteran point guard Tony Parker, but they had just whipped the Heat in Miami by 19 points two nights early, making what the Magic pulled off even more impressive to those involved.
“We’re doing some really good things and you have to be positive and encouraged with the way that we’re playing,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel raved. “I’m just impressed with how we’re playing, offensively, in terms of sharing the basketball. It’s just at a really high level.’’
The level that the Magic played at on Friday could be seen in the raw, one-sided numbers. Orlando, which statistically has one of the NBA’s best offenses, shot better than 60 percent most of the night and finished at 57.1 percent with 11 3-pointers. The Spurs, statistically near the top of the NBA in stopping foes, were gutted defensively and managed just 33.7 percent shooting and four of 24 from 3-point range.
Friday’s 36-point lead on the Spurs comes less than a week after Orlando surged ahead of LeBron James and the Cavaliers by 37 points on Saturday in Cleveland. It also speaks to the enjoyment the Magic are reveling in while battering foes with a variety of offensive and defensive weapons.
Gordon didn’t shy away from the prospect of facing the Spurs, saying this in the hours leading up to tipoff: “We have a chance to give them their first loss.’’
After the smoke cleared on the one-sided victory, Gordon came back with this proclamation: “People aren’t going to take us lightly and if they do, we’re going to blow them out. This is just a good group with a good vibe and good energy. Everybody is playing together so well and it looks like we’re having fun, huh?’’
Does it ever. Evan Fournier, one of the heroes from Tuesday’s thrilling come-from-behind victory against Brooklyn, carved up the Spurs for 25 points on 10-fo-12 shooting and four-of-four accuracy from 3-point range. Nikola Vucevic scored 15 and made all three of his 3-point shots. Four of Orlando’s five starters made more than half of their shots and point guard D.J. Augustin – a starter for a third straight game – chipped in seven points, six assists and two steals.
Friday’s game was Magic guard Jonathon Simmons’ first against a Spurs franchise he spent the previous two seasons with before signing with Orlando in July. Simmons had a thunderous dunk just seconds after checking into the game and finished with 17 points on eight of 13 shooting.
“He was wonderful and he’s paid his dues for sure, playing in the D League a couple of years and listening to me be on his butt constantly. And he grew, he grew as much between the ears as he did with basketball skill,’’ San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said of Simmons before the game. “He’s always had the athleticism, but he matured as a human being and as a player. He got smarter and he understood what it took to have some longevity and stick with a team. We’re nothing but proud of him and we hated not being able to keep him. He helped us a bundle last year. Now, he did well for himself (in Orlando) and I couldn’t be happier for him.’’
LaMarcus Aldridge led the Spurs with 24 points, but even most of that came in garbage time after Orlando had surged comfortably ahead.
“I’m not necessarily surprised because I know how hard all of these guys worked over the summer, how disappointed we were with the (2016-17) season we had and how determined we were to have a better season,’’ Vucevic said. “It’s good that we’ve started this way, but we’re only five games in. There’s a lot of games to be played and things can change quickly in the NBA. But a game like this is something we can take a lot of positives from and learn from. We have to keep playing the way that we’ve been playing so far.’’
Orlando was once again without starting point guard Elfrid Payton, who missed his third straight game with a strained left hamstring. Payton could remain out of action next week as the Magic hit the road to play games against Charlotte (Sunday), New Orleans (Monday) and Memphis (Wednesday).
San Antonio came into the game riding its machine-like offense and a defense that has ground foes down thus far this season. Prior to Friday, the Spurs ranked second in the NBA in points allowed (93.3 ppg.), fourth in field goal percentage allowed (42.5 percent) and eighth in 3-point percentage allowed (31.8 percent).
However, that defense was no match for an Orlando offense that has gutted foes so far with their combination of speed, shooting and unselfishness. The Magic came into the game ranked third in scoring (119 ppg.), fourth in field goal percentage (48 percent), first in 3-point percentage (45.5 percent) and fourth in free throw accuracy (83.7 percent). And those numbers are on the rise after the Magic’s demolition job on San Antonio’s famed defense.
Orlando’s first-half annihilation of San Antonio was as complete as it was surprising what with the way it dominated the action on both ends of the floor. After throttling the Spurs’ highly regarded defense to the tune of 60.5 percent and six 3-pointers and holding San Antonio to 27.3 percent shooting, the Magic headed into halftime with a commanding 61-35 edge. Popovich sensed what was going on early in the night, signaling for a timeout just 1:49 into the game. It did no good as the Magic ran their way to a lead that swelled to as large as 27 points.
After intermission, the Magic put the game away in a third period and incredibly saw their lead grow to as much as 36. A corner 3-pointer from Gordon made it 82-48 and a four-point play by Fournier – a 3-pointer even with a hard hit from Patty Mills – incredibly had Orlando ahead 86-52.
Impressive domination that Orlando hasn’t seen much of in the past five years as it has been on the outside of the postseason since 2012. It’s far too early to even consider something such as the playoffs, but Biyombo likes what vibes that Orlando has rolling. He is convinced that the Magic are not only for real, but a team that can continue to open eyes around the NBA as the season churns along.
“People can say they were missing shots, but just like I said in Cleveland we were playing really, really good defense,’’ Biyombo surmised. “I think that as we continue to beat all of these big teams, who knows what will happen. We can’t get ahead of ourselves and we can’t get too high when we win or too low when we lose. We’ve just got to keep the same pace and see what’s coming. But I’m really excited for everybody here. The way we’re playing and covering for each other, it’s special.’’
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