Magic Hope to Build Upon Stellar Offensive Performance

Markelle Fultz
by John Denton

ORLANDO – When, over the course of the NBA’s marathon-like, 82-game regular season, is a win more than just one win?

That very question arose among the Orlando Magic late Monday night after they set season highs for points (135), fourth-quarter points (42), second-half points (79), 20-point scorers (four) and 3-pointers made (18) in a stirring 135-126 defeat of the Atlanta Hawks at Amway Center.

The hope for the Magic (23-31), of course, is that Monday’s victory has transformative powers and it can finally give the squad the momentum and confidence needed to shake it out of the up-and-down, zig-zag pattern that has frustratingly followed all season.

When is a win more than just one win? When it has the kind of spill-over effect that Monday’s stellar performance had on Tuesday’s preparation for the Wednesday night game against the Detroit Pistons (19-37), head coach Steve Clifford said.

``Oh, for sure, (because) you can feel it when you walk into the gym today,’’ Clifford said of a question as to whether one win have a lasting effect on a team. ``No question about it.’’

Added forward Aaron Gordon, who played a central role in Monday’s win with 26 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two 3-pointers: ``That was good, good momentum (built) and one of those pick-me-up games to show us that we can be an offensive force. We can (be a force) when we’re moving the ball, sharing the ball and everybody’s locked in and focused.’’

Of course, the Magic have been down this road before in thinking that one win could have significant healing powers on a season that has been filled with challenges because of injuries, offensive woes and inconsistencies.

On Jan. 15, with the Magic down to just nine players – one of which was Gary Clark, who had just joined the team a day earlier on a 10-day contract – Orlando stunned LeBron James and the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center.

At the time, it seemed to be just the kind of stirring, emotion-filled victory that could propel the Magic to bigger and better things in the days, weeks and months ahead. Instead, Orlando lost twice over the next three nights and sagged badly against elite competition with a 2-10 stretch that tested their mettle as a team.

Monday’s response against the Hawks was highly encouraging for a Magic team that’s been desperately looking for something – anything, really – to cling to and believe in for weeks. Not only did Nikola Vucevic (24 points, nine rebounds, nine assists and four 3-pointers), Evan Fournier (22 points and three 3-pointers), Terrence Ross (21 points and five 3-pointers) and Markelle Fultz (13 points, eight assists and three steals) all play well simultaneously, the Magic got a huge jolt of energy from newcomer James Ennis III (six points, five rebounds and one assist in nearly 16 minutes). Ennis III, who was acquired in a deadline-beating deal with the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday, had two momentum-shifting dunks in Monday’s fourth quarter to propel the Magic to the win.

``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 is expected to see an increasingly larger role in the coming weeks as he grows more familiar with the Magic’s offensive and defensive systems. ``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.’’
What the Magic want to feel again is the surging momentum that they played with over the final 2 ½ months of last season while delivering a strong closing kick that got them to the playoffs.

Slogging along at a disappointing 20-31 last season, the Magic used a 38-point fourth quarter to rally past the Indiana Pacers for a 107-100 victory on Jan. 31 of 2019. That night – when Vucevic was named an NBA All-tar for the first time in his career – Ross scored 13 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter for what proved to be a victory with major lasting power.

From that point on, Orlando dominated foes defensively, played just well enough offensively and went 22-9 down the stretch to earn the East’s No. 7 seed in the playoffs.

Magic players and coaches remember that turning-point moment from last season quite well. However, they aren’t ready to say just yet that Monday’s win against Atlanta could potentially have some sort of similar effect on this season. After all, it will mean little to nothing if they slip up on Wednesday and lose to the Pistons in the final game before the break for the NBA All-Star Game.

``It could be anybody (as the hero of a big win) and it just so happened to be me in that (Jan. 31, 2019) game last year,’’ said Ross, recalling the moment that undoubtedly turned Orlando’s season around a little less than a year ago. ``We’re going to need a spark from everybody. Every season is different, but we’ve got to build upon (Monday’s win) and get this thing going in the right direction.’’

Added Vucevic, who responded from Saturday’s zero-of-seven shooting night from 3-point range by drilling four of six from beyond the arc on Monday: ``Last season was last season and whatever happened doesn’t matter anymore. We just have to focus on this next game and try to win as many as we can. The next game is the most important game for us. If we can get two wins before the break, refresh and regroup (during the upcoming eight-day break from games), then hopefully we can come back and have a better end to the year than we have had so far and earn that playoff spot.’’

Even when the Magic were struggling and going through their toughest stretch of the season in recent weeks, Gordon staunchly said he still believed in this team as one that could ``do some damage in the East.’’ Performances like the one delivered on Monday showed Orlando’s enormous potential when it is sharing the ball and making shots, Gordon said. The key now, he added, is to repeat the feat, make sure that Monday’s win is more than just one win and that it will have transformative powers in terms of momentum going forward.

``For sure, for sure it can,’’ Gordon said. ``We know that was a little bit of a recipe of how we need to play from here on going out.’’

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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