ORLANDO – When current Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford recently dined with former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, the latter raved to the former about the potentially transformative powers that James Ennis III could have on the team – and in ways other than just as a solid 3-point shooter.
Ennis III, Van Gundy said, plays with a type of energy and toughness that is often contagious to teammates, and the coach who guided the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals thought that’s just what the current team needed.
``Stan really liked coaching him, so for me, enough said,’’ Clifford said of Van Gundy, who coached Ennis III during the 2017-18 season in Detroit. ``Stan was extremely high on picking him up. He told me he’s really, really positive about him as a player, and him as a worker, and that’s really all I had to hear.’’
Clifford got some visual evidence of that on Monday as Ennis III had a dunk in transition and a spectacular put-back jam to cap a game-turning, 11-0 burst early in the fourth quarter. The Magic then made those pivotal plays stand up with some of their best shooting of the season in a stirring 135-126 defeat of the Atlanta Hawks at Amway Center.
``One thing you can do is you can control your effort, your energy, your hustle and your defense and that’s what I want to bring to this team,’’ said Ennis III, who was acquired by the Magic on Thursday in a trade-deadline-beating deal with the Philadelphia 76ers. ``Whenever I get my number called, I’m going to come out with energy and hopefully it carries on and the other guys feel it.’’
Orlando (23-31) snapped a three-game losing streak by setting new season highs for points in a game (135), points in a fourth quarter (42) and made 3-pointers (18). The Magic topped their previous highs of 130 points and 17 made 3-pointers – both set in New Orleans on Dec. 15 – and easily eclipsed their previous fourth-quarter point total high of 37.
Orlando also ended a five-game losing streak at the Amway Center – a skid that dates back to Jan. 8.
``Obviously, that’s a big win for us and I thought in the second half our guys fought hard,’’ Clifford said. ``They’re very difficult to guard, their pick-and-roll game is so good, and we played our normal coverage and we struggled with them getting roll layups. But our guys made a bunch of plays and a bunch of guys played well.’’
Aaron Gordon scored 26 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while Nikola Vucevic barely missed out on the third triple-double of his career with 24 points, nine rebounds, nine assists and four made 3-pointers. Evan Fournier (22 points and three 3-pointers), Terrence Ross (21 points and five 3-pointers) and Markelle Fultz (13 points and eight assists) also played well against a Hawks team that fizzled in the fourth after playing a double-overtime game a night earlier in Atlanta. Orlando outscored Atlanta 42-30 over the final 12 minutes to improve to 18-7 on the season against sub-.500 teams.
The Magic bounced back from a poor offensive effort on Saturday against Milwaukee when they made just 10 of 40 3-point shots. Vucevic missed all seven of his attempts from beyond the arc on Saturday, but he was back in the gym a day later working on his shot the same way he always does, he said. On Monday night, the same shots that Vucevic missed on Saturday went down this time around.
``When we don’t move the ball and settle, it hurts us, but tonight (the ball movement) was better, we fed off that and we were making shots,’’ said Vucevic, who made 10 of 15 shots and four of six threes. ``Hopefully we can keep it up going into Wednesday and play the same way.’’
Ennis III, who waived is no-trade clause for the chance to play in Orlando, got up to speed with the schematics of the offense and defense enough to make his Magic debut on Monday. He had a strip steal of Jeff Teague and an alley-oop lob to Mo Bamba in the early going. And late in the night, his impact was felt in a big way during the most pivotal run of the game.
Down 101-95 with 11 minutes remaining, the Magic appeared to be looking at a third straight loss to the Hawks. However, Ross buried a 3-pointer, Michael Carter-Williams buried two free throws and Gordon had a second reverse dunk after Atlanta’s John Collins had stripped the ball out of his hands. Then, Ennis III capped the rally with a dunk in transition and another thunderous slam when a shot attempt trickled off the rim.
``I believe Michael Carter-Williams went up for a layup and I saw that it had come off a little bit, and that’s what I love to do – offensive rebound – and I saw that opening and I dunked it,’’ said Ennis III, who finished with six points, five rebounds and an assist in 15 minutes.
Atlanta All-Star guard Trae Young had 29 points despite making just seven of 19 shots and only three of 11 3-point shots. He made 12 of 13 free throws and handed out nine assists for an Atlanta team that shot 53.4 percent from the floor.
Monday’s game was likely the last in Central Florida for Daytona Beach legend Vince Carter, who is retiring after playing 22 NBA season and incredibly in parts four decades. Carter, who was honored in a couple of video tributes during the game, scored nine points by making three 3-pointers.
``Obviously I played here so it has more significance,’’ said Carter, a member of the Magic in the 2009-10 and ‘10-11 seasons, of the video tributes. ``But it’s tough to put myself in that emotional state because I get locked into my job. Maybe when I go home it will help me, `Oh no, I’m not playing here anymore.’ Obviously, the recognition and the standing ovation … I’m appreciative of it.’’
The Hawks weren’t just playing on the second night of a back-to-back set of games, but they were playing less than 24 hours after being taken into double overtime by the New York Knicks. Atlanta won 140-135 behind 48 points and 13 assists in 48 minutes from Young.
``I know what we have with our roster, and I know what we’re capable of becoming, and we have to go through the (building) process,’’ said Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce, whose team will add newly acquired center Clint Capela after the All-Star break. ``I’m trying to grow all of our players and I’m trying to grow all of them appropriately. I’m trying to help these guys understand what we’re going through right now as a struggling team isn’t the end all. We’re going to be where we need to be, and we have the right pieces.’’
An Orlando team that easily swept the Hawks in four meetings last season came into Monday a discouraging 0-2 against the Hawks this season. The Magic lost 103-99 in Atlanta in the second game of the season when it made just 35.4 percent of its shots and only five of 31 threes. Even with Young out on Dec. 30, Atlanta was able to beat Orlando a second time – 101-93 at the Amway following more poor shooting by the Magic (five of 25 from 3-point range).
The Magic will play once more before the break for the NBA All-Star Game – Wednesday at the Amway Center when they face the Detroit Pistons. Detroit came into Monday as losers of two straight games and having dropped eight of their past 10 games. The Pistons traded former all-star center Andre Drummond to Cleveland just before the NBA trade deadline on Thursday and it has been without all-star power forward Blake Griffin (knee surgery) most of this season.
``We’ve just got to keep building, keep playing and doing the right things,’’ said Ross, who made eight of 17 shots and five of 10 3-pointers on Monday. ``We’ve got to stay with it because it’s a long season with ups and downs, but it’s up to us to turn things around. That (Wednesday game versus Detroit) would be big. We need that one.’’
Down five at the half, the Magic played especially well in the third period, but they were unable to distance themselves very much from the Hawks because of defensive issues. Orlando found itself trailing 96-93 by the start of the fourth because Atlanta made a staggering 55.6 percent of its shots in the game’s first 36 minutes.
The Magic came into Monday just 3-29 this season when trailing after three periods. This time, however, they won because they snapped out of a three-week slump offensively and scored 42 points in the fourth quarter.
It probably is not coincidence that the stellar stretch came with Ennis III right in the middle of it with a couple of thunderous dunks. He feels that even though the Magic have struggled through a rocky season thus far, they have the pieces to put together another late-season push to reach the playoffs again.
``This team is good,’’ said Ennis, who was beaten twice this season by the Magic while he was still playing for the 76ers. ``They have a bunch of good scorers and a bunch of good defenders, and it’s a great group of guys who want to come out and play hard. I love being part of a team that wants to play hard every time it steps on the floor. I’m happy to be here, I’m happy we got the win tonight and we’ve got another game coming up Wednesday against Detroit and we’ve got to do the same thing – come out with energy and defend.’’
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