By John Denton
Nov. 10, 2017
PHOENIX – In the eyes of Orlando Magic coach Frank Vogel, basketball is a simple game as long as players follow one very basic rule on the offensive end of the floor – they should pass when covered and shoot when left open.
Vogel has repeatedly rammed that point home to his Magic early this season, encouraging them to embrace the pass and to consider the team’s go-to scorer to be the teammate that is the most open on a certain play. Improved passing has led to improved shooting and it’s helped the Magic skyrocket to near the top of NBA as one of the league’s most potent offenses.
Orlando used pinpoint passing, some heady cuts to the rim and more clutch 3-point shooting on Friday night to slice and dice the rebuilding Phoenix Suns in a 128-112 victory at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Up one at the half, Orlando (8-4) broke it open in the third quarter with a dazzling 33-20 performance. And when the Magic pushed the lead to as much as 22 points early in the fourth, it allowed Vogel to rest his starters – something that could help on Saturday when the Magic play in Denver on the second night of a back-to-back set of games.
Orlando shot 51.9 percent from the floor for the game and dished out 29 assists. The Magic had nine assists in the first quarter and set up 16 of their first 24 field goals with passes. By the midpoint of the third quarter, Orlando had registered 19 assists on their first 28 field goals.
Opening its eight-day, four-game swing through the Western Conference in grand style, Orlando won its second straight game. The Magic now have a .667 winning percentage – a plus-.313 percent improvement over last season’s .354 winning percentage (a 29-53 record) and a mark that leads the NBA for the best turnaround so far. This is the Magic’s best start since the 2011-12 season when they were 9-3.
The Magic are now 4-0 against Western Conference foes – a first since 2004-05 – and they are 3-0 on the road versus the West after wins in New Orleans, Memphis and Phoenix. It is the first time in franchise history that Orlando has opened a season with three straight victories on the road against Western Conference foes, according to Stats, Inc.
Aaron Gordon, who attended the University of Arizona and was cheered by Wildcats fans in Phoenix, showed off the massive improvements to his game with 22 points. The 6-foot-9 forward, who has already established himself as an early candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, made seven of nine shots and hit both of his 3-point shots. He’s now shooting 59.5 percent from 3-point range (25 of 42), making him the league leader in that category.
Nikola Vucevic, another Magic player who has greatly expanded his shooting range, hit six of 13 shots and thre of six 3-pointers for 16 points. Jonathon Simmons was once again a dominant performer off the bench with 17 points and the Magic were a plus-26 on the scoreboard in his 26 minutes on the floor. Terrence Ross appeared to snap out of a season-long shooting slump by drilling four 3-pointers and scoring a season-best 17 points.
Evan Fournier had 14 points, but he missed all seven of his 3-point shots to snap his streak of consecutive games with at least one three at 36. Elfrid Payton, who played a second straight game despite lingering pain in left hamstring, had eight points, seven assists and four rebounds in 17 foul-plagued minutes.
Jonathan Isaac had 11 points, six rebounds and a thunderous fourth-quarter dunk off the bench for Orlando.
T.J. Warren scored 20 points for the Suns (4-9), while Alex Len chipped in 21 points and 13 rebounds. Mike James scored 18, while rookie Josh Jackson chipped in 18 off the bench. Standout guard Devin Booker was held to nine points on three-of-10 shooting by the Magic defense.
Friday’s game was the first of a four-game Western Conference swing that will take the Magic to Denver (Saturday), Golden State (Monday) and Portland (Wednesday). Tomorrow’s game will present a distinct challenge for Orlando considering that it will be playing for a second time in as many nights while the Nuggets have been off since a Thursday night home defeat of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Phoenix has been a team in turmoil much of the young season after losing the first three games by a combined 92 points, firing head coach Earl Watson on Oct. 22 and trading disgruntled guard Eric Bledsoe this week to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Suns do own impressive wins against Utah and Washington, but their rampant youth has made it difficult for them to compete most nights against veteran-laden squads.
Up one point at the intermission, the Magic broke the game open in the third and headed into the fourth quarter with a 97-83 lead. It could have been even bigger after Phoenix guard Devin Booker and head coach Jay Triano were hit with technical fouls in between the quarters, but Magic guard Shelvin Mack missed two free throws – a problem area all night for the Magic.
Not only did Orlando make 11 of 20 shots, drill four threes and hand out seven assists in the third, it finally clamped down defensively on the young Suns.
Orlando led 64-63 at the half, but it was a tenuous advantage because of the lack of defense played in the first two quarters. The Magic surrendered 53.8 percent shooting to Phoenix and Jackson ended with half with a tip-in basket just before the horn. The Suns scored 40 points in the paint in the game’s first 24 minutes.
The Magic was able to stay on top thanks to stellar shooting (55.8 percent) and passing (16 assists on the 24 field goals) early on. Orlando’s lead would have been much bigger had it been able to make more than 10 of 17 free throws in the game’s opening half.
Vucevic poured in 16 first-half points with six of them coming on uncontested 3-point shots when Phoenix’s Alex Len backed off of him. Vucevic has greatly improved his shooting range this season, making 20 of 48 3-point shots prior to Friday night’s game.
Payton showed no ill effects of the sore hamstring in the early going, dunking on the first possession and racking up six points, three assists and two rebounds in the game’s opening five minutes. However, Payton picked up two quick fouls that knocked him out of the game – an issue, Vogel said, because long stretches of inactivity tend to cause him leg to tighten up. He returned late in the half only to pick up a third foul – something that limited him to just nine minutes in the opening half.
Phoenix’s Jackson was a terror for Orlando early on, ripping off two steals and cutting his 16 points in the first half.
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