By John Denton
Oct. 18, 2017
ORLANDO – Late in Wednesday’s season-opener, when a mostly one-sided game got tense after the Orlando Magic witnessed their 17-point lead surprisingly shrink to two, point guard Elfrid Payton assembled his teammates and delivered a pointed and powerful message.
“OK, guys, remember (the last) two-or-three years and we’d be in the same situation (and lose) and now we’re going to win it,’’ Magic forward Evan Fournier remembered Payton telling the group and daring to mention the team’s painful past. “And that’s what happened. E.P. told us that in the timeout and I thought it was really relevant and he was right.’’
The Magic’s fourth-year point guard was exactly right because Fournier grabbed Wednesday’s game by the throat and squeezed the life out of the rival Miami Heat over the final 2 ½ minutes to ensure that Orlando wouldn’t have to endure another painful collapse.
Fournier scored seven of his team-high 23 points and assisted on another key basket to teammate Nikola Vucevic down the stretch, allowing Orlando to hold off Miami 116-109 and preserve the feel-good vibes of a thrilling victory in the opener.
A noisy, sellout crowd of 18,846 jammed inside the Amway Center looked on in mostly horror as the Magic (1-0) allowed a 97-80 advantage to shrink to 105-103 with 2:39 to play.
If a Magic team that hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2012 wasn’t already thinking about all of their painful close losses in the past, it was following Payton’s timeout talk. This time, however, things would play out differently because of the grit and shot-making skills of Fournier, who drilled a 3-pointer and sank two difficult layups over the outstretched arms of shot-blocker Hassan Whiteside when his team needed it most.
Afterward, Fournier offered up a rather blunt assessment that spoke volumes about how this Magic team just might be different than its predecessors.
“I think two or three years ago, that’s a game we would have lost,’’ Fournier said. “It shows growth from us players. It was a good win, but we’ve got to get the stops and make sure that our offense and defense are always connected. … We are growing and getting better.’’
That was evident most of the night as the Magic had six players score in double figures and their defense limited Miami (0-1) most of the night with some vastly improved stinginess. Orlando looked as if it was going to run away from the hated Heat in a rout when rookie Jonathan Isaac rebounded a miss and dunked for a 97-80 lead with 10:58 to play.
But if anything can be culled from the Magic’s past, it’s that very little comes easy for this team – especially late in games. But when his team found a way to survive, head coach Frank Vogel could focus more on the positives from the night than the frightening fourth quarter.
“Every success builds confidence in your group – big success and small success – so this definitely falls into that bucket,’’ said Vogel, whose Magic won on opening night for the first time since 2012. “Our guys can draw some confidence from the fact that we didn’t play a great basketball game, but we were still able to win against a team that was the best in the Eastern Conference the second half of last year. So we’ll draw some confidence from that, but we’ve still got a lot to work on.’’
Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic who is still awaiting his first playoff trip in Orlando, battled all night with Miami’s Whiteside and finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds. Afterward, Vucevic marveled at the toughness of Fournier – his closest friend on the team – in drilling the 3-pointer that put Orlando ahead 108-102 and basically sealed the game.
“That (3-pointer) was big, but he’s been capable of making big shots like that and, at the end of the game, he made all the right plays on those three or four shots,’’ Vucevic said of Fournier, who made nine of 17 shots and three of five 3-pointers. “He made some tough shots, but we know that he can do that and we have the confidence to get him the ball. He came up really big for us.’’
Aaron Gordon finished with 14 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two blocks on a rough shooting night, while Payton contributed 13 points, nine assists and three assists. Terrence Ross, who missed a week of preseason action with a strained hamstring and a case of the flu, played well on Wednesday with 15 points and three 3-pointers.
Reserve center Bismack Biyombo showed off his vastly improved feel around the rim by giving the Magic nine points, five rebounds and two blocked shots. Jonathan Isaac, the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, grabbed eight rebounds and scored four points – none of them bigger than his follow-up dunk with 9:58 to play that gave Orlando a seemingly safe 97-80 lead.
Isaac, who recently turned 20 years old, avoided a bit of embarrassment midway through the first quarter when he realized he had forgotten to put on his game jersey under his shooting shirt. He sprinted back to the locker room for the wardrobe change and wasted little time scoring his first NBA points by sticking in a D.J. Augustin miss just 13 seconds after stepping onto the court late in the first quarter.
“That was fun and exciting – just as fun as I thought it was going to be and just as nerve-wracking as I thought it would be,’’ said Isaac, who also blocked two shots in 17 minutes of action. “For me, it was just about making winning plays, focusing on defense and focusing on getting stops. I had a couple of defensive letdowns early that they talked to me about, but I just had to get back out there and play.’’
Jonathan Simmons, who left the San Antonio Spurs in the offseason to sign a free-agent deal with the Magic, had 12 points off the bench. His biggest contribution came on the defensive end as he limited standout Miami point guard Goran Dragic to 17 points on six of 19 shooting.
As he was all last season in four games against Orlando, Whiteside was a force on both ends of the floor and compiled 26 points and 22 rebounds. However, Miami shot just 44 percent and made only eight of 30 3-pointers against Orlando’s stingy defense.
It was a night-and-day difference from a year earlier when Miami gashed the Magic for a whopping 74 points in the paint to rout Orlando in the 2016-17 season-opener. Defense was a big priority all preseason for the Magic and it showed in the urgency that they played with throughout most of Wednesday’s game. Still, there is plenty of room for improvement, Vogel said.
“Honestly, I thought we’d play a little better than we did,’’ Vogel said. “We gave up 56 points in the paint, but our individual containment was pretty good. We missed some coverages and we didn’t take care of the glass well enough.’’
The Magic will be back on the practice floor on Thursday before departing for New York City. Orlando plays the Nets in Brooklyn on Friday night and then faces LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Cleveland on Saturday. It will be the first of Orlando’s 15 back-to-backs this season – eight of which will feature road games on consecutive nights. Also, the Magic have 28 of their first 50 games on the road – the most away games in the NBA during that stretch to open the season.
Up 58-55 at the half following a stellar second-quarter rally, Orlando carried that momentum over to the second half and pushed the lead to as much as 15 points in the third period. Slowing down the Heat on one end with their defense and burning them on the other with their speed in transition, the Magic took an 88-78 lead into the final period.
Once down as much as seven points in the first quarter, the Magic played an inspired second period – keyed by their running game – and stormed to a lead as large as seven points themselves. By halftime, the Magic led 58-55 thanks to a 7-0 edge on fast break points and a 15-6 advantage on second-chance points.
None of it might have mattered had Fournier not stepped up late in the night to hit one big shot after another. His gutsy play down the stretch helped the Magic avoid completely blowing a 17-point lead and avoid the heartbreak that so often plagued them in recent years.
“It was a good first game, but there were a lot of bad things as well,’’ Fournier surmised. “We’ve got to learn from it. … It was good that we won, but I wish we would have killed the game when we were up 17. We were playing really, really good ball. It was a mix of everything and maybe we were too confident. But when you’re up 17, you’ve got to kill the game.’’
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