Aaron Gordon Expects More From Himself

Magic forward was disappointed with his performance against Spurs
by John Denton

ORLANDO – With Aaron Gordon recently delivering the best stretch of basketball in his six-season NBA career, capped by a first-ever triple-double performance, that feel-good spree apparently did more than simply lift the Orlando Magic to heights that they hadn’t seen in weeks.

The stretch also caused the 24-year-old Gordon to dramatically raise the expectations that he has for himself.

When the Magic lost 114-113 in heartbreaking fashion on Saturday in San Antonio following an Evan Fournier missed layup in the closing seconds, no one was more upset with themselves – Fournier, included – than a dejected Gordon, who pointed the blame for the defeat squarely at himself. In the lead up to that furious finish that ultimately ended Orlando’s winning streak at three games, Gordon failed to supply the same sort of do-everything production that he had authored over the previous three-plus weeks of games.

``This one is on me. This one is, for sure, on me,’’ Gordon candidly said in front of his corner dressing stall in an eerily silent Magic locker room. ``I didn’t play how I needed to play for us to win.’’

On a night when gaudy numbers like the ones that he had posted over the previous 10 games – 19.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals while shooting 48.6 percent from the floor and 38.6 percent from 3-point range – were needed from Gordon, the 6-foot-9, 235-pounder uncharacteristically submitted a seven-point dud that was notable only for how passive he was early in the game. He did somewhat salvage his two-of-five shooting night (that included five free throw misses) with six assists and six rebounds, but Gordon was upset with himself for a first half where he attempted just two ill-advised, step-back 3-point shots that missed.

Making matters even worse, at least in Gordon’s eyes, was the fact that San Antonio’s Trey Lyles won the power forward matchup by more than tripling his usual scoring average. A 5.5-point-a-game scorer prior to Saturday, Lyles put up 20 points, nine rebounds, three steals and two 3-pointers against Gordon’s usually attentive defense on Saturday at AT&T Center.

``I mean, personally, I wasn’t ready in the first quarter and I feel like a lot of this was on me,’’ Gordon said, repeating himself often to ram home his ownership of a first quarter in which he was outscored 12-0 by Lyles. ``A lot of this is on me. I didn’t play nearly to the level that I’ve been playing at to make us go.’’

To hear Magic coach Steve Clifford tell it, Gordon was hardly alone in being the culprit for just Orlando’s second loss in the past seven games. Clifford was upset following Saturday’s game that the Magic fell into a 16-point hole in the first quarter and faced a 15-point deficit in the third quarter – poor starts that were the products of subpar play by the Magic’s starting five.

``The biggest part of this game was the beginning of the game,’’ said Clifford, whose Magic (27-33) will be back at the Amway Center on Monday night to face the Portland Trail Blazers (26-35). ``People love to say the NBA is a fourth-quarter league, but it’s anything but if you’re in it for a long time. Playing from behind on the road is difficult, especially in an arena like this in a game that meant a lot for both teams. (The Spurs) were very ready early and shot the ball well. After the first quarter, we played well, but it’s hard to come all the way back from a (16-point deficit) like that.’’

Despite their poor starts to both halves, the Magic fought throughout and seemingly put themselves in position to nab an unexpected win when it grabbed a 111-107 lead with 2 minutes to play. Terrence Ross (21 points and four 3-pointers), D.J. Augustin (12 points and two 3-pointers) and Mo Bamba (eight points, five rebounds, two blocks and a fourth-quarter 3-pointer) provided support off the bench on a night when the Magic’s starters all had negative plus/minus ratios.

That second-half fight, in itself, was significant considering that the Magic were playing on the second night of a back-to-back set of games, while the Spurs were in action for the first time after having days day to rest up and prepare. After beating Minnesota in Orlando on Friday night, the Magic didn’t arrive at the downtown San Antonio hotel rooms until after 1:30 a.m., but they refused to go down on Saturday without a fight against the well-rested Spurs.

``That,’’ Gordon said of Orlando’s grit, ``shows me a lot.’’

However, Orlando’s late lead disappeared when DeMar DeRozan (16 points and nine assists) converted a runner in traffic and Bryn Forbes tied the game at 111 with 1:27 to play on a finger-roll layup. When center Nikola Vucevic and Fournier misfired late, Forbes (13 points and three 3-pointers) provided the winning points by burying a 3-pointer from the right wing with 50.5 seconds to play.

Markelle Fultz (11 points and three assists) got the Magic within one on a short, pull-up shot. In the final seconds, Fultz poked the ball away from Forbes for a turnover, and forward James Ennis III scooped up the loose ball and got it to Michael Carter-Williams, who led a four-on-two Magic fast break and fed it to a streaking Fournier. The Magic shooting guard, who played well otherwise and finished with 23 points, deftly split the defense of Patty Mills and Rudy Gay, but his layup with 2.2 seconds hit hard off the backboard and fell off the front of the rim.

Like Gordon, Fournier pointed to the blame for the loss directly at himself.

``It’s a layup, man; it’s a damn layup,’’ a frustrated Fournier said afterward. ``There is no excuse.’’

That Gordon was also in a position to question himself and his approach late Saturday night was surprising considering the week that he had just had, one that just might earn him the NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week award despite the deflating result against the Spurs.

On Monday, Gordon authored one of the most complete games of his career when he drilled 11 of 16 shots and three of four 3-pointers, scored 28 points and delivered the game-saving defensive play of the season when he swatted Caris LeVert’s layup to preserve a victory over Brooklyn. Gordon then followed up his 25-point, 10-rebound, six-assist, three-block night on Wednesday in Atlanta with a performance on Friday that he won’t soon forget. By compiling 17 points, a career-best 12 assists and 11 rebounds in a 136-125 defeat of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Gordon notched a triple-double feat that had barely eluded him a couple of times in his career. The do-everything night also spoke volumes about the completeness of Gordon’s progress during the season.

``It’s just about being more focused,’’ Gordon said. ``My Achilles finally doesn’t hurt too bad after dealing with that Achilles’ tendinitis early in the season. But if it’s not one thing (with body soreness), it’s another. It’s not a testament to my body. If I’m out there, I’m good.’’

Gordon has been so good of late that Clifford said: ``Right now, everything you watch him do just makes sense because it’s good, solid team play. And he makes us a different team when he’s playing this way.’’

Gordon’s recent hot streak started back on Feb. 1 – some two weeks prior to his controversial runner-up finish in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend. Despite recording five straight dunks with perfect scores of 50 and hurdling 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall on his final jam of the competition, Gordon ultimately finished behind Derrick Jones Jr. and had to settle for a second runner-up finish in four years.

Fournier, who has played with Gordon for six seasons in Orlando, doesn’t buy the notion that the uber-athletic forward has been motivated of late by his disappointing result in the dunk contest.

``The dunk contest and actual basketball are different,’’ Fournier said. ``Sometimes, it’s just the break because you get to go to the beach, enjoy the sun, relax, think about nothing else and it’s kind of like a reset button.

``You’ll have to ask (Gordon) because we’re all different, for sure,’’ added Fournier, referring to the notion that Gordon might have used the dunk snub as fuel for his inner fire. ``Was he disappointed? Yeah, for sure. Was it extra motivation to show that he’s a good player? Nah, I don’t think so.’’

Gordon showed plenty of disappointment on Saturday when the Magic couldn’t finish off what would have certainly qualified as a quality win what with the way they rallied back to take a late lead on the Spurs. Gordon, however, said Orlando should have never been in the position to need a rally if he had continued to attack and seek out opportunities with the same focused aggression that he’s shown in recent weeks while playing the best basketball of his career.

Now, he said, the expectation is for him bounce back in a big way on Monday against Portland and play once again as he has of late when he’s been at his do-everything best. Gordon’s expectations for himself are higher than they have ever been, and he isn’t about to give himself a pass in a game where he didn’t play at the same level that he’s been at for the past 3 ½ weeks.

``We had opportunities to win, but we’ve got to go back home (and recover),’’ Gordon said with conviction. ``A 3-1 week is not bad, but we had an opportunity to go 4-0. … We’ve got to get something (going) early, get something going. So, that’s on us now.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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