By John Denton
Oct. 7, 2017
ORLANDO – For some perspective on how much more comfortable the Orlando Magic are now in this, their second season with head coach Frank Vogel and relatively the same core in place, they played with heart, toughness and cohesion on Saturday against the Miami Heat – aspects that certainly weren’t apparent this time a year ago in South Florida.
Orlando’s solid play on Saturday had a distinct night-and-day different feel than a year earlier in Miami when the two Sunshine State rivals faced off in the preseason. Orlando’s 93-90 defeat of Miami on Saturday at the Amway Center showed how much further along the Magic are now than when they were thumped by 30 in Miami last October.
“So, so much further along now because guys trust each other and believe in the identity of the way we’re playing,’’ said point guard Elfrid Payton, who keyed Orlando’s running game (17 fast break points) with nine assists, four points and one steal. “That (belief) makes a world of difference for us.’’
Not only do the Magic have infinitely much more chemistry, comfort and cohesion now in Vogel’s second season, they also dramatically improved their roster with the additions of Jonathon Simmons, Jonathan Issac and veteran guard Arron Afflalo. Those three all played well in the second half, lifting the Magic to victory and delighting a noisy crowd of 18,428 at the Amway Center.
“I take a lot of pride (in his intensity) because I had to find my niche in this league by playing defense and bringing energy,’’ said Simmons, who had 12 points, five rebounds, three steals and a dazzling chase-down block of a Wayne Ellington shot with 7:06 to play.
Now 2-1 after winning twice at the Amway Center this week, the Magic are clearly much improved over last season when the humbling 107-77 loss to the Heat dropped them to 2-5 in the 2016 preseason. On Saturday, Orlando made 46.3 percent of its shots, scored 42 points in the paint and finally got a handle on Miami’s outside shooting (nine of 19 on threes in the first half; zero of 13 in the second half).
Afflalo, a standout with the Magic from 2012-2014 and someone who wanted to return to Orlando as a free agent this summer, poured in eight of his 10 points in the fourth quarter. His spinning fade-away shot in the post was a thing of beauty and he beamed with pride after his first 3-pointer put the Magic ahead 83-81 with 4:30 to play.
“It’s just exciting to be back here and I’m so proud of my teammates and I want to see all of them do well,’’ Afflalo said. “Guys like Jonathon Simmons, his intensity is amazing and that’s what this team needs to embody. We need that fighting, competitive spirit. And, quite frankly, I don’t want to talk about playoffs all year, but we’re a good team when we play that way (with fight).’’
Aaron Gordon scored 19 points and grabbed six rebounds in three quarters of work, while Terrence Ross (11 points), Nikola Vucevic (eight rebounds) and Evan Fournier (nine points) all played well. Isaac was at his do-everything best again with 13 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots. In three preseason games, the 20-year-old rookie has now swatted five shots – including a stuff on the 7-foot, 265-pound Hassan Whiteside on Saturday night.
“That was super fun when I caught him and he didn’t know I was behind him and he was trying to get a quick one,’’ Isaac said. “I wasn’t nervous at all tonight. I think I just needed to get that first one (on Thursday) and I wasn’t nervous at all tonight.’’
Josh Richardson scored 19 for Miami (1-2), while Hassan Whiteside and Dion Waiters each chipped in 17. Whiteside also had a game-high 15 rebounds.
The Magic won’t practice on Sunday, but they will fly to Texas for a couple of preseason games in the coming days. Orlando will face the Mavericks in Dallas on Monday (no local television). The Magic whipped Dallas 112-89 at the Amway Center on Thursday, but seven veteran Mavs and head coach Rich Carlisle did not make the trip because of either rest or illness.
Orlando plays in San Antonio on Wednesday (no local television) for its only back-to-back set of games in the preseason. The Magic close the exhibition season on Friday against the Cleveland Cavaliers (7 p.m., Fox Sports Florida) at the Amway Center. That final preseason game is expected to attract a sellout crowd to see the Magic and Cavs.
A night after USA Soccer’s World Cup qualifying defeat of Panama in Orlando, head coach Bruce Arena and many of USA’s players attended Saturday’s Magic/Heat game.
Miami held out starting point guard Goran Dragic –long a Magic killer – on Saturday night. Orlando also rested many of their veteran reserves (Marreese Speights and D.J. Augustin) in the game.
The Magic struggled to cut into Miami’s lead in the third quarter and headed into the fourth trailing 75-68. Gordon and Ross combined for 30 of Orlando’s point total to that point and didn’t play in the fourth as the Magic put many of their younger roster hopefuls into the game.
In the fourth, Orlando surged ahead thanks to one big play after another from Afflalo, Simmons, Isaac and Bismack Biyombo (nine rebounds, three blocks and two points). For Afflalo, his three-of-four shooting – including two 3-pointers – reminded him of days three years ago when he was the Magic’s leading scorer.
“I love the fans here and I hope that I can put on a lot of shows for them,’’ Afflalo said with a chuckle. “Just by being competitive and playing with a lot of fire (helps). The more energy that (Magic fans) bring, the more that I’m going to bring.’’
Orlando trailed 54-49 at the half – a disappointing score considering that it dominated the first quarter and once led by as much as eight points.
As well as the starters played in the first quarter – they had 22 points in the paint and 10 fastbreak points in the first quarter – a second unit of Shelvin Mack, Mario Hezonja, Simmons, Isaac and Biyombo struggled on both ends of the floor. Not only did they miss seven of their first shots of the second period, they allowed Josh Richardson (15 points) and Dion Waiters (13 points) to heat up from the outside. Those two combined for four of Miami’s nine 3-pointers in the first half.
Vogel has said repeatedly this preseason that the Magic having continuity in the coaching staff and the team being comfortable with the expectations of them should be a big boon for the Magic this season. Vogel vividly remembers the disastrous 30-point loss in Miami last October and he feels that the Magic are much further along and much better equipped to play a hard-nosed team like Miami.
“I think continuity is part of (the team’s growth), but I think the style of play we were playing last year being so big was a challenge against one of the best driving teams in the league,’’ Vogel said, referring to the Heat. “Being smaller now hopefully helps us match up with them. It seems like the whole league is playing this style of play so you’ve got to have speed to be able to contain the basketball.’’
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