By John Denton Dec. 31, 2017
NEW YORK – Amid the rubble of a crushing second-half collapse on Saturday night, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon was able to find a sliver of light that brightened his otherwise gloomy mood.
Gordon had one of the best games of his four-year NBA career on Saturday, making 14 of 22 shots, drilling five 3-pointers and connecting on six of seven free throws in an otherwise spectacular 39-point performance.
Gordon’s focus, however, was on one of the shots that he missed and ultimately resulted in the Magic losing 117-111 to the rival Miami Heat. Somehow, the way the final seconds unfolded, with Gordon missing a 3-pointer that could have tied up the game, still gave him reason to smile and it strengthened his hope that brighter days are ahead for himself and the Magic.
``I loved the look. I was too open and I didn’t think I was going to be that open,’’ surmised Gordon, referring to the 3-point shot the Magic coaching staff drew up to get him a shot that might potentially tie the game. ``It was a great play draw-up and it means the world that Frank (Vogel) put that trust in me.
``The next time I get that opportunity, I’m going to knock it down,’’ Gordon said in conclusion.
That next time could be Monday night when the Magic (12-25) face the Nets (13-23) in Brooklyn. The last time those two teams played it was Gordon who was on center stage all night and had the ball in his hands at the end when Orlando needed a critical basket.
Back on Oct. 24, Orlando trailed Brooklyn 121-120 with 48 seconds to play even though Gordon was in the midst of a career night. Orlando came out of that last-minute timeout and fully intended to get the ball to forward Evan Fournier. However, when the play broke down, center Nikola Vucevic instead fed Gordon, whose 3-pointer from the left wing sent the Magic on their way to a victory and it capped a 41-point night from the blossoming forward.
As it turns out, that was the first of two game-winning 3-pointers Gordon has made this season for the Magic – an almost unthinkable proposition in previous seasons when he struggled to crack 30 percent from the 3-point line. Gordon also had the game-winner in Memphis on Nov. 1 when he buried a corner 3-pointer off a feed from Fournier.
With the Magic have squandered an 18-point edge and in a tense back-and-forth game against the Heat on Saturday, it was only natural that Orlando worked to get the ball into Gordon’s hands.
Gordon, who was playing his second game after missing 12 days with a strained right calf muscle, missed his first shot of Saturday’s game and then made his next seven for 20 first-half points. Similarly, he missed his first shot of the third quarter and then drilled four in a row to give him 34 points on 13 of 17 shooting heading into the fourth quarter.
Gordon was a big benefactor of the Magic running their way to 24 fastbreak points in the first half, but those opportunities largely dried up in the second half when they had no answers defensively for Tyler Johnson (22 of his 31 points in the third quarter) or Goran Dragic (14 of his 25 in the fourth).
That left the Magic in a 109-105 hole with 1:12 to play, and Vogel drew up plays to free Gordon. Miami’s Josh Richardson tried running Magic forward off the 3-point line, but collided with Gordon and he calmly sank all three free throws to draw Orlando back within one.
After a Dragic jumper put the Magic down three, Vogel signaled for a timeout with 23.8 seconds remaining. The play designed had Gordon starting on the low block, weaving his way through the lane and around a couple of screens and coming out at the top where he would hopefully have enough airspace to get off a potential tying three. Much to his surprise, Gordon was ``too open’’ and his slight bit of hesitation might have played a role in the shot being off line.
Vogel, who was understandably short after seeing the Magic lose another winnable game, didn’t hesitate in drawing up the potential game-tying shot for Gordon.
``Yeah, it was a good look,’’ Vogel said. ``What did he shoot – five-for-11 from the three? I’ll take that one.’’
So, too, would Gordon, who vowed early in the season that he would make foes pay this season for daring him to shoot from 3-point range – a strategy often used early in his career when he struggled from beyond the arc. Following an offseason of tireless work on his shot, Gordon has dramatically altered the look and success rate of his outside shot and he will enter Monday’s game in Brooklyn at an impressive 41.3 percent from 3-point range. Factor in other career highs in scoring (a team-best 18.9 ppg.), rebounding (7.9 rpg.) and assists (2.1) and it’s easy to see why the Magic are leaning more on the 22-year-old Gordon in key moments.
Though Saturday ended with frustration, Gordon found reasons to be optimistic – both with his feel of his recovering body after the 12-day layoff and with the Magic as they head into 2018.
``I felt OK and as the games progress – by Monday – I think I’ll have a better rhythm,’’ said Gordon, who admitted to having soreness in his body after missing time recently with a concussion and the calf strain. ``There needs to be a level of energy that we sustain through the whole night and make the little plays to build consistency.
``This (loss to the Heat) just motivates us to go and get the next win. And that’s what we’re going to do,’’ he added. ``We’re going to go and watch film, see what breakdowns we had and go win the next game.’’
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