Behind Ross' Offense and Team's Stifling Defense, Magic Stay Undefeated in Preseason

by John Denton

ATLANTA – Lopsided winners in their first two preseason games, a confident Orlando Magic squad came into Wednesday talking about continuing to build cohesion and continuity while establishing a high standard for the squad to strive for on a nightly basis.

While their play was nowhere near as crisp or dominant as it had been days earlier in victories over San Antonio and Detroit, the Magic eventually righted themselves from a shaky start and got back to the style of attacking offense and smothering defense that they established in training camp and early in the exhibition season.

Terrence Ross scored 20 points, while forward Jonathan Isaac poured in 13 and held high-flying Atlanta forward John Collins without a field goal as the Magic surged past the Hawks 97-88 to move to 3-0 in preseason play.

``It’s a good testament to how hard we’ve worked as a team,’’ Ross said of the Magic’s strong play on both ends of the floor thus far this preseason. ``But at the same time, I think our new challenge is that with how well we’re playing right now, this has to be our standard going forward. Our challenge for the season has to be to make sure that we’re playing like this night-in and night-out. Going forward that will be the challenge for us.’’

Orlando won despite shooting just 37.6 percent from the floor and making just 10 of 34 3-point shots before a sparse crowd of 10,945 fans at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena. Ross, who re-signed with the Magic over the summer despite getting offers from several other teams, buried four of those 3-point shots, including a 28-foot dagger in the final seconds of the third period. His final three of the night came midway through the fourth period off a stellar drive-and-kick assist from reserve point guard Markelle Fultz.

Atlanta (0-2) wasn’t any better offensively, shooting just 33.8 percent from the floor. Trae Young, the runner-up for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award last season, scored 18 points and drilled a 3-pointer with 8:30 to play that got the Hawks within 79-77. But Atlanta would get no closer as Ross heated up in the fourth before being pulled from the game for good.

Said Isaac, who marveled at the shooting of Ross: ``I just told him, `You are a wizard, man!’ That’s his gift and that’s what he does – he knocks down very difficult shots consistently. We’ve got to live with his misses and live with his makes and continue to have him take shots. Tonight, he definitely, definitely, definitely helped us get this win.’’

Collins, Atlanta’s versatile forward, once again struggled against the long-armed defense of the nearly 7-foot Isaac. Collins missed all eight of his shot attempts in 23 minutes of action. Isaac had the upper hand over the forward much of last season as well, once blocking his shots three times in one possession in Atlanta.

``Terrific,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said of Isaac’s gritty defense.

Added the Magic’s steadily blossoming third-year pro: ``John is tough, he rolls and he knocks down shots, but it’s just about me trying to stay in front and play his drives and box him out because he’s a great offensive rebounder. It’s just about playing off instincts and trying to get stops.’’

All-star center Nikola Vucevic had 13 points and four rebounds in 23 minutes of work. Fultz, who continues to prove himself healthy and effective as a playmaker, finished with six points, three steals and two assists. He made only two of 10 shots, but he did effortlessly swish his first two free throws in a Magic uniform. In three games, he’s made just nine of 28 shots and is zero for four from 3-point range, but the Magic are happy with his effectiveness as a playmaker off the dribble and his defensive grit as a big guard.

Reserve center Khem Birch, who also re-signed with the Magic in July, played well in the fourth quarter and buried his first 3-pointer at the NBA level. He also converted a thunderous dunk late in the night. Melvin Frazier Jr. chipped in six points, four rebounds, two steals and a 3-pointer.

Magic standout forward Aaron Gordon, who was coming off a spectacular 25-point effort on Wednesday in Detroit, left Wednesday’s game midway through the first half after suffering a bruised jaw. Gordon appeared to get hit with an Alex Len shoulder while the Atlanta center was setting a screen. The Magic kept Gordon out of the game as a precautionary measure and he finished with five points, two rebounds and an assist in eight minutes.

The Magic held starting shooting guard Evan Fournier (rest), reserve forward Wes Iwundu (knee swelling) and rookie Vic Law (soreness) out of the game for precautionary reasons. None of the injuries are thought to be serious. Michael Carter-Williams, a key cog in Orlando’s playoff run last spring, started in place of Fournier. His defensive play has received high praise so far from Magic head coach Steve Clifford.

``He’s been our best defender,’’ Clifford said. ``He’s been disruptive, he contains the ball and he’s an elite-level defender. He can guard primary players and he’s one of the few guys that I’ve ever seen that can both guard the ball without getting beat and steal it. And at this level that’s very rare. He’s got size and he can guard different people, so I want to find ways to use him.’’

After playing three games in San Antonio, Detroit and Atlanta over the past six nights, the Magic will take Thursday off. They will then host the Boston Celtics on Friday (7 p.m., Magic Radio Network) in the Amway Center debut for the team. Orlando wraps up the preseason schedule with home games against Philadelphia (Sunday, 6 p.m., Magic Radio Network) and Miami (Oct. 17, 7 p.m., Fox Sports Florida) before opening the regular season on Oct. 23 against the Cleveland Cavaliers – also at the Amway Center.

``This will be Day 9 for us, and we haven’t had a day off yet,’’ Clifford said of the work his team has put in thus far. ``Because we’re playing five games in nine days, even (Wednesday and the two upcoming games) we’re not going to play guys big, big minutes. With our conditioning – because those guys did so much in September – we’re in a good place there.’’

Orlando led 46-44 at the half despite playing some of its sloppiest basketball of the preseason. The Magic made just six of their first 21 shots and scored only 18 first-quarter points. A Magic first unit that has been solid with its execution and shooting thus far, coupled with Ross’ shooting off the bench, helped to get the team going in the second quarter.

Ross had 10 points by halftime, while Vucevic burned the Hawks inside for nine points in the opening half.

Fultz missed his first three shots, including a 3-point try, but he got himself going in the second quarter with a hard drive to the rim. That resulted in his first free throws in a Magic uniform and he swished both perfectly. From there, Fultz again drove hard into the paint, spun away from a defender and sank a 12-footer.

Despite grabbing a third straight victory, Clifford said the Magic still have plenty of work to do this preseason. On this night, Atlanta exposed some of the Magic’s occasional sluggishness on the offensive end of the floor.

``You are going to learn more from this game probably than the other two,’’ Clifford surmised. ``The more you play, the more teams are going to game plan and they’re going to play their (primary) guys more.

``The thing we didn’t do tonight is, we didn’t move the defense,’’ Clifford continued. ``We’re not that team and we don’t have a guy who is going to break down the defense consistently and create things. We have to move the ball and that’s why offensively it was a struggle.’’

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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