Postgame Report: Magic 101, Wizards 92

by John Denton

ORLANDO – In a season that, quite frankly, hasn’t made much sense for months for the struggling Orlando Magic, they defied all sorts of conventional wisdom on Wednesday in the season finale and won a game that they might have been better off losing in the long run.

In many ways, the downright bizarre events of the night were emblematic of a season where little has gone as planned for a Magic franchise that will miss the playoffs once again.

When the Magic got off to a strong start behind standouts Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic and finished it with more stellar play from young players Rodney Purvis, Khem Birch and Mario Hezonja, they walked off the Amway Center floor for the final time this season with a 101-92 defeat of the Washington Wizards.

``Obviously, we didn’t have a good season with it ending early and with the record that we had, but in the last game it’s always fun to get a win,’’ said Vucevic, Orlando’s longest-tenured player at six years. ``It was great to see the young guys come in and do well and play together. … And I think was great also for the fans and it was a way for us to thank them for the support in this tough season by getting a win. It doesn’t mean much, but it’s always better than losing.’’

Orlando (25-57) defeating Washington (43-39) was somewhat shocking considering the weighty circumstances that hung in the balance coming into Wednesday’s finale. Had the Wizards won on Wednesday, they could have climbed out of the No. 8 seed and vaulted to the No. 7 seed opposite of the injury-ravaged Boston Celtics in the playoff brackets. However, when they held starters John Wall and Otto Porter out of the game and made just five of 25 shots in the fourth quarter, it led to a loss and a playoff date against the East-leading Toronto Raptors.

Had the Magic lost on Wednesday, they would have tied Atlanta and Dallas for the NBA’s third-worst record and most likely improved their odds at getting the top overall pick in the June NBA Draft, something that will be determined in May’s NBA Draft Lottery. However, when they made 13 3-pointers to set a franchise record for the season, got contributions from all over the roster and outscored the Wizards 25-17 in the fourth quarter, the Magic ended up with a victory that will give them the fifth-best odds in the May draft lottery.

Magic head coach Frank Vogel said he understood fans’ worries that the franchise might have damaged its chances of landing a star player in the June NBA Draft, but he said he is confident that Orlando will still be in position to add a difference-maker going forward. More than anything, Vogel was delighted that his team stayed together throughout a trying season and kept trying to win all the way until the final buzzer.

``I understand (Magic fans), but you go out and you compete to win and that’s all you can be concerned with at this level – the coach level and the player level,’’ Vogel said. ``What I’d tell (the fans) is, `We’re going to get a good player at four, five, six, seven – whatever we pick.’ We’re going to get a good player who is going to help us going into the future, so you don’t worry about the positioning when you’re managing the team.’’

In the finale, Hezonja scored 15 points for the Magic, while veteran guard Arron Afflalo chipped in 12 points. Birch had 13 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots to further cement his spot in the NBA, while Purvis added 16 points and two 3-pointers.

The Magic drilled 13 3-pointers, giving them 844 for the season to set a new franchise record. The 2009-10 Magic team, one that reached the Eastern Conference Finals, made 841 3-pointers.

``A perfect example of that (sticking together) and a perfect ending for us,’’ Vogel said. ``It’s been a tough year for us, but all throughout the difficult times this year this group has remained a tied-together group with good chemistry and they’ve enjoyed each other. That was evident tonight. Everybody contributed at a high level and it was a good team win.’’

Jodie Meeks had 18 points for the Wizards, while Bradley Beal scored 13 on a poor-shooting night.

Whereas Washington lost on Wednesday and is still heading to the postseason, the Magic’s playoff fate has been sealed for months and for a sixth straight April there will be no postseason in Orlando.

Orlando has had several months to deal with the disappointment of another sour season, but time has done little to dull the pain of missing the white-hot intensity of the playoffs yet again. One by one, Magic players and coaches spoke of the frustration of another sour season on Wednesday, expressing sentiments of surprise and sadness.

``It’s disappointing. We underachieved as a team and that’s always disappointing,’’ lamented Gordon, who opened Wednesday’s game with three straight 3-pointers and finished with 11 points in 12 minutes. ``We’d loved to be in the playoffs, but I guess we weren’t ready.’’

Added veteran center Bismack Biyombo, who played in his 82nd game of the season on Wednesday for the second time in his career: ``One thing that I do know is that we did not deliver the way that we all wished and desired. We did not meet our expectations. We started great and everything was going good for us, but when you hit those downs that’s when you are going to need to be at your best. Unfortunately, we didn’t.’’

Wednesday’s result was somewhat shocking considering that Orlando came into the night limping to the finish. It had dropped 14 of the previous 19 games and had little to gain by winning. Instead, they battered their foe with 3-pointers much of the night, led by 10 at the half and took a one-point advantage into the fourth quarter. Washington surged ahead early in the final period, but the Magic rallied with a 25-17 stretch over the final 12 minutes. When Washington missed 20 of its final 25 shots, Vogel pointed out it was another sign of the defensive growth that the Magic have made over the final six weeks of the season.

The great, early-season start referred to by Biyombo was the Magic’s promising 6-2 burst back in mid-October. A week later, Orlando sat at 8-4 overall and 4-2 on the road, seemingly justifying the team’s beliefs that things would be different this season.

Sadly, they were not. A nine-game losing streak followed and that only proved to start a spiral that ultimately saw Orlando drop 27 of 31 games at one point. That poor stretch – caused largely by a spate of injuries, the schedule getting tougher and the Magic’s weaknesses being exposed – sealed the team’s fate and all but ended hopes of the playoffs once again.

``It’s definitely not the way we wanted to end up our season,’’ said Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who played just 12 minutes on Wednesday and finished with two points, four rebounds and three assists. ``I know we didn’t set up any expectations, but obviously we didn’t want it to end up this way where we have no chance fighting for a playoff spot.’’

Orlando’s 24-58 record comes on the heels of last season’s disappointing 29-53 mark. That’s the last thing that Vogel expected would happen when he took over the team two seasons ago.

The Magic’s many struggles – especially on the defensive end of the floor – have worn on Vogel this season. Despite Vogel helping many of Orlando’s young players made individual strides this season, it hasn’t added up to equal much team success. For a coach who was in the playoffs five times in his first six years of coaching, Vogel has admittedly struggled with missing the postseason each of the past two years.

``It’s no fun being out of the race,’’ he said. ``The playoffs are a fun thing to be a part of that really liven up your whole life up. To not be there is disappointing and frustrating, but like I’ve said, in life you just deal with the hand that you are dealt the best you can with a positive attitude, enthusiasm and energy and enjoy what you do.’’

That was the case all the way up to the end on Wednesday, when the Magic mustered the effort and enthusiasm to win a game they were expected to lose. For Vogel, it was a bright spot in an otherwise dark season.

``I was proud of them for remaining together,’’ he said. ``We talked about togetherness from Day One in training camp all the way through the pregame meeting (on Wednesday), about playing for each other, caring for each other and enjoying each other. That’s step one in building a winning culture and our guys did that at a high level. They made the best of a tough situation by playing with great effort, positive energy and enthusiasm all throughout a difficult season. So, I told them I was proud of them for that.’’

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