By John Denton
Oct. 24, 2017
ORLANDO – In Aaron Gordon’s first three NBA seasons, when he often struggled to crack 30 percent from the 3-point line, foes repeatedly backed off defensively and dared him to let shots fly from the perimeter. He was, as the NBA maxim says, open for a reason.
Defenses might not have learned their lesson just yet because the season is still young, but Gordon – and his gritty Orlando Magic, for that matter – aren’t anywhere near the same pushovers that they have been in the past. Not from the 3-point line in the case of Gordon and not in the tense moments of close games for the Magic.
Gordon, a 22-year-old forward known primarily for his exploits as a dynamic dunker, rewarded the thousands of hours of work he’s put in to improve his 3-point stroke by capping a career night on Tuesday with arguably the biggest shot of his young career.
When Gordon drilled a go-ahead 3-pointer from the left wing with 36 seconds to play it gave him a career-best 41 points and it gave the Magic a thrilling, come-from-behind 125-121 defeat of the Brooklyn Nets.
An Amway Center crowd of 16,015 throbbed with raw emotion when Gordon connected from deep for the fifth time and it breathed a sigh of relief at the final buzzer as the Magic (3-1) won a game it looked like they would lose most of the night.
They had Gordon’s unbreakable and unstoppable will – not to mention that much-improved 3-point stroke – to thank for the good vibes to come from the victory.
“I just shot confidently, it was a quick shot and it felt good coming off my hands,’’ said Gordon, who became the first player in Magic history to score at least 40 points and make all five of his 3-point shots. “I just feel really good with my shot. I’ve put in a lot of work – (the media) know how hard I work – so it feels good to have a game like this. So, I’m going to continue to shoot the ball.’’
In possession of a 3-1 record for the first time since the start of the 2011-12 season, Orlando won on Tuesday despite trailing by as much as 12 points early in the night and by 10 in the fourth quarter. Shelled defensively for long stretches and sluggish offensively outside of Gordon, the Magic made 12 of 19 shots and held Brooklyn (2-2) to 32 percent shooting in the final 12 minutes. They found a way to win on a night when they were far from their best – a sign of the Magic’s growing belief in their new direction, head coach Frank Vogel insisted.
“There’s a lot of talk about, `last year we would have done this’ but I don’t get caught up in all of that,’’ said Vogel, referring to the notion that his team might have lost a game like Tuesday’s last season. “I just know that our team this year has a belief in itself. We just have a feeling like we’re going to have a good season and we’re going to get over the hump this year. Everybody is bringing purity to their effort and their focus. So far, early on, it’s resulting in a couple of wins, but we’ve still got a lot of work to get done because we can play a lot better than we did.’’
The victory came on a night when the Magic wore black patches across their jerseys adorned with the initials “HDV’’ in honor of the late Helen DeVos, wife of owner Rich DeVos. Mrs. DeVos, who was known for her decades of philanthropy, died at the age of 90 last week and was laid to rest this past weekend in his native Michigan. Vogel, who led the team in a chant of “1, 2, 3, Mrs. D’’ last Thursday, dedicated the victory to the late Mrs. DeVos.
“I just want to say that this win’s for Mrs. D,’’ Vogel said. “They had the celebration of life ceremony up in Michigan for her today. To the whole DeVos family, our thoughts and prayers are with you guys. This one’s for Mrs. D.’’
Evan Fournier jump-started Orlando’s 38-25 advantage over the final 12 minutes by scoring 11 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter. Still, Orlando trailed 121-120 after DeMarre Carroll stripped the ball out of Nikola Vucevic’s hands and converted a layup with 48 seconds to play. The Magic didn’t panic when their first option for Fournier was taken away and Vucevic kicked the ball out to Gordon, who confidently buried the clutch 3-pointer from the left wing.
“The play got broken up and I saw an opportunity to drive and then I saw that (Gordon’s) man helped and stayed with me. I knew that Aaron was behind me and I wanted to make the right play and he hit the shot,’’ said Vucevic, who was able to celebrate his 27th birthday in style despite an uncharacteristically poor night shooting (six of 17, 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks). “At the end, we just came together as a team and were able to find a way.’’
By finding a way, the Magic avenged their only loss of the season – a 126-121 result to the Nets in Brooklyn three nights earlier. Point guard D.J. Augustin played his second solid game in a row in relief of injured starter Elfrid Payton and finished with 19 points and six assists. Jonathan Simmons (12 points) hit eight of 10 free throws, helping Orlando to get to the line 40 times with 35 makes.
Brooklyn guard D’Angelo Russell, a key offseason acquisition in a trade with the Los Angeles Lakers, made his first four 3-point shots and finished with 29 points. Ronde Hollis-Jefferson and Carroll hurt the Magic with 18 and 17 points, respectively.
Orlando got Gordon back after a two-game absence because of a left ankle that he sprained midway through the season-opening defeat of the Miami Heat. He seemed determined to make up for lost time early on, scoring 10 of Orlando’s first 18 points and pouring in 24 points by halftime.
Gordon, who had two highlight-worthy dunks early in the game, pumped in another 12 points in the third quarter, but the Magic still trailed 96-87 going into the fourth. And they would stay behind must of the way until Fournier’s 3-pointer gave them a 112-110 advantage with four minutes to play.
Gordon topped his previous high of 33 points – set on Dec. 14, 2016 in Los Angeles against the Clippers – in less than three quarters, but it seemed to all being going for naught when Brooklyn surged ahead 121-120 with 48 seconds to play.
This time, however, Gordon made an opposing defense pay for leaving him alone behind the 3-point stripe and the game on the line. He never hesitated in taking the game-winning shot and even confidently posed as the ball sailed through the Amway Center air.
All those years of backing off him and daring him to shoot, all of those hours spent perfecting his shot from distance and all that pain from close losses came down to Tuesday’s biggest moment, and this time Gordon delivered with the biggest 3-point shot of his life.
“I definitely shot the ball well tonight, but regardless of the statistics and regardless of the numbers that I shot (in the past), I’m going to continue to shoot my shots when I feel that I’m open and in rhythm,’’ said Gordon, who made 14 of 18 shots, all five of his 3-pointers and eight of 10 on free throws while also chipping in a game-high 14 rebounds. “Whatever happens after that, it’s out of my control. I’m just going to take what I know that I can do.’’
On Tuesday, what Gordon could do was hit 3-point shots and he confidently drilled the one that won it for the Magic. Maybe, just maybe, defenses will no longer back off and dare him to shoot. But Gordon vowed he won’t let his success beyond the line define how much happiness he has out on the court.
“It’s a basketball game at the end of the day,’’ Gordon said with a smile. “I’m living it and it’s a lot of fun. The fans, great teammates, great coaching staff – it’s heaven out there.’’
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