Vucevic, Gordon and Fultz All Clutch in Magic's OT Win

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Maybe it was only fitting that with the break for the NBA All-Star Game now mercifully upon the shorthanded Orlando Magic that players with past, present and potentially future ties to the All-Star Weekend played major roles in a Wednesday win that was a perfect microcosm of their topsy-turvy first 55 games of the season.

Nikola Vucevic, a first-time all-star this time a year ago, drilled a go-ahead 3-pointer late in regulation and sank a difficult layup in traffic in the final minute of overtime for what proved to be the winning points. Aaron Gordon, who will be Orlando’s lone representative in Chicago this weekend while competing in the All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest, capped arguably his best game of the season with a clutch, game-tying 3-pointer with 63 seconds left in regulation. Finally, point guard Markelle Fultz – a player who has a stated goal of being an NBA All-Star this time next year – left his fingerprints all over Wednesday’s game when he outplayed his boyhood hero, Detroit’s Derrick Rose, and made one big play after another when the Magic absolutely needed it.

Add all of that up and the Magic were somehow able to escape the Amway Center on Wednesday night and head into the break for the NBA All-Star Game feeling good about themselves after toppling the Pistons 116-112 in overtime.

Vucevic (19 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists), Gordon (25 points, nine rebounds, nine assists and three 3-pointers) and Fultz (22 points, 10 assists and two steals) played well throughout to help the Magic (24-31) secure a defeat of the Pistons (19-38) and head into the All-Star break with a modest two-game winning streak. Considering all that they’ve been through thus far with injury issues and shooting struggles, the Magic will take it and hope to be better over the final 27 games to come.

``What we all had on our minds was that we knew that we gave up a big lead, the game was going back-and-forth and we knew that we really needed that win and had to find a way to pull it out,’’ said Fultz, who made eight of 14 shots and five of six free throws. ``In the end, we came out with the victory and that was huge.’’

Orlando won despite blowing a 22-point, second-quarter lead, surrendering nine offensive rebounds and watching Langston Galloway sink a tying 3-point shot with 1.4 seconds remaining in regulation.

That sent the Magic into their first overtime game – the last NBA team to do so this season – and they found a way to win it when Fultz had a clutch baseline jumper in OT and Vucevic sank the pick-and-roll layup in traffic with 40.8 seconds left in a game tied at 112 at the time. In regulation, with the game tied at 105, Vucevic popped to the perimeter on a two-man play with teammate Evan Fournier, and he knocked down the 3-pointer that gave Orlando a brief lead before Galloway’s last-second heroics.

Vucevic, who followed up a zero-for-seven 3-point shooting night on Saturday against Milwaukee with a four-of-six performance on Monday versus Atlanta, didn’t hesitate on his open look in the final seconds of regulation despite and otherwise tough shooting night. After missing his first six attempts from 3-point range, Vucevic sank his seventh three – but not before the ball rattled around the rim and bounced six times before falling through the net.

``We ran a pick-and-roll on that play – which had been good for us – and (two Detroit defenders) both went with (Fournier),’’ Vucevic recalled. ``I was wide-open, (Fournier) was able to find me and I shot it with confidence. The rim was pretty friendly to me on that one compared to the other ones that I shot before. But, yeah, it was a good look and I was confident that I was going to make the next one.’’

An Amway Center crowd of 16,607 saw the Magic outscore the Pistons 8-4 in the five-minute overtime period. Gordon, who had a rebound, an assist and a steal in the extra period, felt the Magic were extremely fortunate to win a game where they missed their first 11 shots of the fourth quarter and trailed by as much as seven points with 5:25 remaining in regulation.

``I’d like the team to be playing a little bit better,’’ said Gordon, who hit the All-Star break playing the best basketball of the season while averaging 19.6 points over his last seven games. ``I know that I help us and when I play well, the team plays well – which is kind of a given. But we’ve got a long way to go to be a team that is in contention and can win in the playoffs. But I’m going to continue to play the way that I know how to play, be true to myself and have fun playing the game.’’

Magic coach Steve Clifford sounded as if he didn’t know whether to be pleased with his team’s fight through tough times or upset about the gaffes that led to it being in a sticky predicament in the first place. Orlando allowed the Pistons – losers of four straight and 10 of 12 – to make 18 3-point shots and get tying dunks in regulation and overtime from forward Christian Wood (26 points, 12 rebounds and four offensive boards).

``I just told the guys this, `It was a good win and an important win,’ and I know a lot of people think we’re limited because we’ve taken a lot of injuries, but we can play so much better,’’ Clifford said. ``Most of the effort things in our league, we’re like top five or six. Last year we had the third-best defensive rebounding team in the NBA and we rarely went through games where we weren’t physical late in games.

``When I met with (President of basketball Operations) Jeff (Weltman) and (GM) John (Hammond) at the end of (last) year, I told them that our biggest strength was our versatility and our size and our second-biggest strength was that everybody wanted to win badly and prove to the league that we’re not the same Magic,’’ Clifford continued. ``Our effort so far this year has been better than most teams in the league, but it’s not what it needs to be. And that’s what we have to get to.’’

Evan Fournier chipped in 19 points and four 3-pointers for an Orlando team that shot 45.8 percent overall with 12 3-pointers. James Ennis III, who was acquired on Thursday in a deadline day deal with the Philadelphia 76ers drilled his first 3-pointer in Magic pinstripes and finished with seven points in 14 minutes.

The Magic were without reserve center Mo Bamba, who missed the game with flu-like conditions. Khem Birch, who has bounced back and forth between the power forward and center positions, got Bamba’s minutes and opened the second quarter with three straight dunks. He finished with eight points and four rebounds in nearly 13 minutes.

Up just four at the half following a torrid finish to the second quarter by the Pistons, the Magic were able to hang onto the lead throughout most of the third period – but it was far from easy. Once down as much 22 points, the Pistons actually caught the Magic midway through the period at 75-all. That number was significant considering that the Pistons scored just 76 points in a Monday loss in Charlotte.

Orlando clung to an 87-81 lead at the start of the fourth period. That seemed to bode well for the Magic considering that they came into Wednesday 19-2 this season when either leading or tied after three periods. After finding a way to win in overtime on Wednesday, the Magic are now 20-2 when tied or ahead after three periods.

Disaster seemed to have hit early in the fourth period when Orlando didn’t have a field goal over the first 6:08 of the final quarter. A 15-2 Detroit run – fueled by Orlando’s 11 straight misses offensively – gave the Pistons a lead as large as seven points three different times.

This time around, however, the Magic found a way to dig out of the hole behind the strong play of Vucevic, Gordon and Fultz. Before breaking for the All-Star Game, the Magic needed every contribution they could get from their all-star of the past (Vucevic in 2019), present (Gordon at the Dunk Contest) and potentially future (Fultz hopes to be there a year from now).

Gordon says this will be ``my last dunk contest ever.’’ He was the controversial runner-up in 2016 when he was edged in a ``dunk off’’ by two-time champion Zach LaVine. Asked for a preview of what kind of dunk show he plans to put on on Saturday night, Gordon said: ``Hopefully, you’ll see that trophy coming back to Orlando.’’

As for Fultz, the No. 1 pick of the 2017 NBA Draft, he wants this to be the last time that he isn’t in the NBA’s showcase event for its best players. He feels that with the continued improvement of his game and with better conditioning in his troublesome right shoulder that he can be a dynamic difference-maker for the Magic and an all-star selection a year from now.

``That’s definitely on my list of things to do,’’ Fultz said of becoming an all-star in the near future. ``Again, it’s up there, but I’ve got to make the steps to get there. I’ve got to keep working hard, keep learning, get in the playoffs and go experience that and then spend all summer working on my game.

``But I definitely feel like (making the All-Star Game next season) is reachable for me,’’ he added. ``As long as I keep working hard and stay humble, all of the goals that I set can be reached.’’

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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