SAN ANTONIO – In a sign that indicates just how much forward Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon has grown as a playmaker this season, head coach Steve Clifford admitted recently that he’s altered some of the design of his team’s plays to take better advantage of the 6-foot-9, 235-pounder’s vision and passing skills.
Gordon has rewarded the trust that Clifford has put in him with some of the best performances of his career of late. On Friday, in a 136-125 defeat of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Gordon showed off his full abilities as a passer by recording a career-best 12 assists in the first triple-double performance of his six-season NBA career. He added 17 points and 11 rebounds for one of the most complete performances of his career.
``It adds another dimension to our team,’’ Clifford said of Gordon’s improved passing. ``As we go forward, you have to constantly look for different ways during a season that you can add to your offense. His passing out of the post against the zone and in pick-and-rolls has gotten better and better and we’re trying to take more advantage of it.’’
With the Magic now running more of their offense through Gordon, he has started to rack up assists at career-best levels. In his past 10 games, Gordon has averaged a whopping 6.1 assists a night – a number much higher than the 2.3 assists he’s averaged for his career. Gordon averaged a career-best 3.7 assists a game last season, and his average for this season is up to 3.5 following a slow start that possibly could be attributed to injuries to his ankle, Achilles’ tendon and calf muscle.
Gordon said he is enjoying his new role as a playmaker and his ultimate goal is to make the teammates around him better.
``I’m playing with pros and very talented players, so it’s easy to get assists out here,’’ said Gordon, who had two feed to teammate Terrence Ross off backdoor cuts on Friday night. ``That’s what I’m looking to do – distribute the ball and make the game easier on everybody’s that on the floor and they do the same for me. It works together and it works well. For me, it’s just about keep moving the ball and keep making the right play and the numbers will come.’’
Added Clifford: ``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.’’
COACH’S CHALLENGE: Clifford has said repeatedly that he isn’t fully sold on the long-term viability of the ``Coach’s Challenge’’ rule that the NBA instituted this season. However, the coach has used the new rule to his advantage in two recent games.
On Wednesday in Atlanta, after the Hawks had trimmed a 13-point deficit to four in the fourth quarter, Clifford challenged a controversial foul call on Gordon that would have resulted in two free throws for Hawks’ big man Damian Jones. When the replay showed that Gordon’s block was clean, the ball was jumped at center court and it ultimately led to a 3-pointer by Magic forward James III. That shot began an 11-2 Magic burst that secured the victory.
On Friday against Minnesota, Evan Fournier tried to get Clifford to challenge a call at the rim where there was minimal contact, but the Orlando head coach declined to do so after re-watching the play on the Amway Center video board high overhead.
Later in the game, Clifford used his ``Coach’s Challenge’’ when Gordon was whistled for a charging foul after passing the ball as the Magic were down 79-78. Clifford was able to win the challenge when the replay showed that Minnesota center Naz Reid using his hands and moving his feet on the play. Seconds later, Fournier drilled a 3-pointer that gave Orlando the lead and sent it on its way to another victory.
``(Head video coordinator) Mark (Jenkins) is in here (in the locker room) and he sends the clips out (associate coach) Rick Higgins, but you only have about 15-20 seconds depending on how quickly they get to the free throw line,’’ Clifford said. ``The one (on Friday) night, (Reid) had his hands out and that’s the emphasis and when they called the charge, I was pretty sure that would be (overturned). When I looked at the bench, (the assistant coaches) were all shaking their heads (in agreement) like, `Challenge it.’’’
According to data compiled by the NBA this season, 38 percent of foul calls challenged (164 of 427) have been overturned, while 76 percent of out-of-bounds calls challenged (45 of 59) have been overturned and 69 percent of goaltending/basket interference calls (11 of 16) have been changed.
UP NEXT: After playing a back-to-back with travel mixed in in between and four games in six nights, the Magic will get a much-needed day off on Sunday. Orlando will be back on the parquet floor at the Amway Center on Monday night when it hosts the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Magic will be highly interested to see if all-star point guard Damian Lillard – who has been out since Feb. 13 with a groin strain – joins the Blazers at some point on their East Coast road trip – namely for Monday night’s game. Lillard has long been a Magic killer, averaging 23.6 points on 43.4 percent shooting overall and 35.7 percent accuracy from 3-point range in 15 career games against the Magic.
Lillard torched the Magic for a game-high 36 points on Dec. 20 when the Blazers beat the Magic 118-103 in Portland.
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