By John Denton
Oct. 5, 2017
ORLANDO – One of the NBA’s best mid-range jump shooters throughout his six seasons in the NBA, Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic knew the next progression for his career was to expand that range out to the 3-point line to make himself an even more dangerous offensive weapon.
Considering that the Magic desperately need shooting from anywhere they can get it, they had to be delighted in seeing the 7-foot center confidently stroke one 3-point shot after another on Thursday night at the Amway Center. In today’s NBA, where teams often flood the floor with three and four shooters at a time, Vucevic could make the Magic’s offense even more dangerous this season if he can consistently make shots from beyond the arc.
Vucevic, who has made just 30 3-pointers in his career, drilled two of his three shots from 3-point range and scored 14 points in Thursday’s first half to lead the Magic to an easy 112-89 victory over the dramatically depleted Dallas Mavericks.
“I really put in the work on it (over the summer) and for me it’s about finding that balance and not just standing out there and still being able to make plays in the paint,’’ Vucevic said. “It’s just about me figuring out the new way that we’re going to play and how I can be effective at both (inside and out). But when I get looks like I did (Thursday) and it’s open, I’m going to take those. Comfort-wise, I’m pretty comfortable and as I start making more of the them, I’ll shoot more in games. And the fact that they are really pushing me to shoot them gives me even more confidence.’’
Vucevic’s accuracy from deep seemed to spark Orlando from 3-point range. After making just five of 32 tries from beyond the arc in Monday’s preseason opener in Memphis, Orlando (1-1) connected on 11 of 28 3-point shots on Thursday. Eight different Magic players made at least one 3-pointer in the game.
Also, the Magic shot better than 50 percent much of the game and finished at 47.7 percent for the night.
“Look, the total body of work for the game was fantastic,’’ gushed Magic coach Frank Vogel, whose team had 23 assists and 13 fast break points, forced 17 turnovers and blocked seven shots. “I was really proud of how we played and approached the game, knowing that they had a bunch of guys out. We’re just trying to play to a standard no matter who is in front of us.’’
Aaron Gordon, who is hoping to have a breakout season in his fourth year in the NBA, was especially sharp in limited minutes. He scored 14 first-quarter points and finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds in just 20 minutes.
“It doesn’t really matter where I am or what position – I’ve been trying to say that for a long time – but it’s just about exploiting mismatches,’’ Gordon said. “We’re playing really well as a team and they’re finding me and I’m finding them. It’s just really fun to be out there right now.’’
Jonathon Simmons, Orlando’s prized free-agent addition from the San Antonio Spurs, finished with 10 points despite some bad rolls on his short shots in the lane. Mario Hezonja added 11 points, while veteran center Marreese Speights chipped in 10 points in just 10 minutes. Speights, a native of St. Petersburg, was playing his first game in Orlando for the Magic – the team that he grew up rooting for.
Having routed the Chicago Bulls in Dallas on Wednesday, the Mavericks (2-1) kept seven of their most veteran players – Dirk Nowitzki, Devin Harris, Harrison Barnes, Wes Matthews, J.J. Barea, Josh McRoberts and Nerlens Noel – back in Texas, allowing them to skip the flight to Orlando for a second game in as many nights. Also, veteran Mavs coach Rick Carlisle skipped the game because of an illness, leaving assistant Melvin Hunt to coach the game.
Dennis Smith Jr., the No. 9 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, scored 13 points despite making just four of 13 shots.
Magic rookie Jonathan Isaac, the No. 6 pick from the June draft, had two points, three rebounds and two blocked shots in his Orlando debut at the Amway. He scored 15 in the opener and impressed on Thursday with his long-armed defense in 17 minutes.
Vogel said that Isaac’s defense is “NBA ready’’ already and that prompted this from the 20-year-old rookie: “That feels great to hear because I have that same sort of feeling about myself defensively. Offensively my game is going to progress as I get more and more games into the league, but defensively I feel it’s just instincts and I have good instincts. I feel great that Coach (Vogel) feels I’m ready to be on the floor on defense.’’
A memorable moment for long-time Magic fans came prior to the game when newly minted Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady shared a warm hug with Darrell Armstrong. The two played together with the Magic from 2000-03 and are still two of the biggest fan favorites to ever don Orlando jerseys. Armstrong is an assistant coach with the Mavericks, while McGrady watched the game from a courtside seat next to Magic Chairman Dan DeVos.
The Magic will be back on the practice court on Friday before hosting the rival Miami Heat on Saturday night. The game could give the two Florida-based teams a sneak peek at one another since they will open the regular season against one another at the Amway Center on Oct. 18. The Magic whipped the Heat in three of the four meetings between the two teams last season.
The Magic and Mavs will see one another again on Monday in Dallas. After playing in San Antonio on Tuesday, the Magic will close the preseason on Oct. 13 against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Up as much as 22 early on, the Magic let their lead drop to 10 in the third quarter. That’s when head coach Frank Vogel turned to veterans Arron Afflalo, Shelvin Mack and Speights. That trio combined for three 3-pointers and 11 points in the third quarter, helping Orlando push its lead back out to 90-73 by the start of the fourth.
Said Vogel: “I love Mo Speights. He’s just a sly, savvy vet and he just comes in and knows how to play. He’s got a great IQ and he leads the action out there. He definitely likes to play games more than he likes to practice, but he’s a gamer and I’m definitely liking coaching him.’’
Orlando had no problem running away from the short-handed Mavs in the first half, building the lead to as much as 19 points and taking a 64-46 advantage to the locker room. Whereas the Magic shot just 36.4 percent and made only five of 32 shots in Monday’s preseason opener in Memphis, they connected on a torrid 53.7 percent of their shots in Thursday’s first 24 minutes. Also, they drilled seven of their 14 3-pointers – shots that came off stellar ball movement and their sharing mentality.
Gordon did as he pleased early on, making the Mavs pay when they tried guarding him with Seth Curry on defensive switches. Gordon scored 14 of Orlando’s first 29 points and had six rebounds by halftime.
Vucevic missed his first 3-point try, but he made the next two with confident strokes. His first three came off good ball movement, while the second one came when he was trailing the play and he caught the opposing big man off guard.
“(His 3-point shooting) helps the team a lot too because if the bigs aren’t out on me I’m going to get wide-open looks,’’ said Vucevic, who had never made more than three 3-pointers in a season in his first five years in the NBA. “If I start making some (threes), then it will open up a lot of space for guards. Especially with the guys that we have, it’s going to open up a lot of space for drives and create a lot of open looks. I’m going to try and help the team in that way.’’
Isaac had a couple of dazzling highlights early in the game. Fresh off his 15-point effort in Memphis on Monday, Isaac buried a pull-up jumper for his first points of the night. Later, he sized up a Smith Jr.’s drive to the rim and swatted the shot backward.
“Good rim protection down there, kid,’’ Vogel yelled to the rookie from the sidelines.
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