BOSTON – For weeks, the Orlando Magic have worked under the assumption that if they were going to end the longest postseason drought in franchise history and earn a playoff position, they would have to win their way in with their own success.
So, maybe it was only fitting that a Magic team that has been tested time and again all season and forced to battle back repeatedly showed the same sort of resiliency and grit on Sunday night in a stirring victory that pushed them into the playoffs.
Down 13 in the early going and stunned late in the night when Boston rallied to wipe out a 14-point deficit to knot the score, Orlando got clutch plays from franchise fixtures Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Terrence Ross for a 116-108 victory that vaulted it into the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
``It was overwhelming, and really, it’s all about the way we did it,’’ said Fournier, whose dunk in traffic with 2:02 to play broke a 106-all tie and sent the Magic on their way. ``When we were 20-31 (on the season), we still fought through it with a lot of adversity. And then to win the way we did tonight, it was a game where we were up big, but they made huge plays. But we’re tough man, we’re tough. We really wanted it, we kept our composure and we made it.’’
After Orlando (41-40) made it with its third consecutive win, the 10th victory in the past 12 games and it locked up the sixth division title in franchise history, the team celebrated in the locker room by wildly dancing around and throwing water into the air. No one savored the unadulterated joy more than Vucevic, the longest-tenured Magic player who had suffered through six painful seasons of rebuilding. On a night when he once again stuffed the stat sheet with 25 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots, Vucevic admittedly was near tears as he celebrated the playoff hysteria with his teammates.
``It’s an amazing feeling and nobody knows what I’ve been through these last six years with the losing and the struggling and doubting and it’s been very difficult for me at times, but it paid off in a great way,’’ said Vucevic, an all-star for the first time in his eight-year NBA career this season. ``It’s an amazing feeling and I’m so proud of these guys. We fought all year long, it was a tough season and we were down a few weeks ago and it was a very difficult situation after that Washington loss (on March 13), but we just found a way. I’m just so proud of these guys and the coaching staff.’’
Head coach Steve Clifford was as assistant coach for the Magic the last time the franchise was in the playoffs in 2012. This time around, he has been the architect of one of the greatest turnarounds in the league this season. Orlando has made an NBA-best 16-win improvement from last season (25-57) to this one (41-40). And after the Magic found a way to gut out a victory that it likely would have squandered early in the season, players and staffers in the Magic locker room doused the usually no-nonsense NBA veteran of 19 seasons with water. And he didn’t mind it one bit.
``Phenomenal locker room scene. The guys were ecstatic, deserving and it’s fun to see,’’ said Clifford, who likely has vaulted himself into consideration for the NBA’s Coach of the Year award with his team winning 21 of the past 30 games to push its way into the playoffs. ``I feel like we’ve done it the right way. We’ve played our best in these last 30 games and we’ve made good progress all year. … To have the right care factor and to withstand some stretches that were difficult – and they stayed with it and kept getting better – it was obviously a big-time (accomplishment).’’
A Magic fan base that packed the Amway Center throughout the lean years and roared with raw emotion as the team won its last nine home games of the season was greeted with this message blaring on Twitter late Sunday night: PLAYOFF TICKETS ON SALE MONDAY!
``It’s really special and it feels like the culture around here has shifted to a winning culture,’’ said Gordon, a five-year Magic veteran who had 14 points and a cutting layup from Vucevic with 1:28 to play that gave the team a four-point lead. ``We really feel like we have a way that we can play now that’s going to get us a win every night. It’s a different feeling and it’s a beautiful to play our way in.’’
Nothing about Sunday was easy for a Magic team that hasn’t had it easy all season and sat disappointingly at 20-31 six weeks ago. Thanks to its stellar play of late, Orlando could have slipped through the side door of the playoffs prior to even taking the floor on Sunday night had both Miami and Charlotte lost games earlier in the day. When the rival Heat fell in overtime in Toronto, the Magic understandably got their hopes up. However, they were dashed when Charlotte and superstar guard Kemba Walker dominated in Detroit. Suddenly, the Magic stared at the prospect of having to go to Charlotte on Wednesday and win if it couldn’t find a way to win in Boston.
``When we saw the Hornets win (about 90 minutes prior to tipoff in Boston) it kind of hit us – `We definitely have to win and if we don’t, this game in Charlotte (on Wednesday) is going to be very, very hard for us,’’ Fournier candidly admitted. ``We really gave everything tonight and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Winning in Boston is way better than the Hornets losing in Detroit. This means so much more.’’
Fournier scored 24 points – none bigger than the two that came off the dunk that broke the 106-all tie. Vucevic, who has talked for years about wanting to be a part of the team that brought basketball excitement back to Central Florida and the Magic back to the playoffs, scored 25 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Terrence Ross, the team’s most clutch contributor off the bench all season, scored 14 of his 26 points in the fourth period. He drilled five 3-pointers and hit all nine of his free throws in the game. Coming through when they had to have it, the Magic sank all 22 of their free throws on Sunday.
Point guard D.J. Augustin added 11 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds in 32 minutes. Boston superstar Kyrie Irving scored 23 points and hit the 3-pointer that knotted the game at 106 with 2:50 to play, but he had trouble keeping up with Augustin all night long. Afterward, Augustin – an 11-year veteran who quieted doubters about his ability to run the team early in the season – reveled in the Magic overcoming a variety of odds.
``We rode (the doubts) and it carried us with our belief in each other and that we’re a good team that could beat anybody,’’ Augustin said. ``It’s great feeling. … We had to earn this. People doubted us from the beginning of the season before training camp even started. But coming back from All-Star break, something just clicked for us and we rode that wave. We’re here now and we’re going to keep competing.’’
The Magic, who end the regular season in Charlotte on Wednesday night, captured the Southeast Division title on Sunday in addition to clinching a playoff slot. It’s the first time since 2010 that Orlando will head into the playoffs as a division champ.
The Magic have the same record as Brooklyn (41-40), but the Nets own the tiebreaker, knocking the Magic down to the seventh seed. The Nets close the regular season at home on Wednesday against Miami.
Orlando could still climb as high as the sixth seed where it would open the playoffs against the star-studded Philadelphia 76ers, a team the Magic whipped twice during the regular season. It could wind up in seventh and face Toronto, a team it split four games against during the regular season. Or they could be eighth and face MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Said Augustin: ``We’re still playing for something. We don’t want to just make the playoffs. We want to go in, play hard and compete. We’re not satisfied. We’re going to keep working hard and getting better. We’re excited right now.’’
Orlando was victorious the first two meetings of the season against the Celtics, winning 93-90 in Boston on Oct. 22 and rallying at the Amway Center to win 105-103 on Jan. 12. After finding a way to win on Sunday, the Magic swept the season series from the Celtics for the first time since the 1996-97 season when they won all four meetings.
The Magic got a big break early in the game and late in the third quarter when Boston standouts Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Al Horford (18 points) suffered injuries and could not return to the game. Tatum bruised his left shin bruise six minutes into the game. Smart, who had six points, hurt his hip in the third period and hobbled to the locker room after spending nearly a minute on the floor. As for Horford, he didn’t play in the fourth quarter so he could rest some of the nagging bumps and bruises he’s gotten throughout the season.
``I thought Orlando played great,’’ said Boston coach Brad Stevens, who was impressed with the Magic’s rally after the Celtics tied the game at 106. ``They played the way they’ve been playing all along.’’
The Magic used an 11-2 burst to finish the first half and they picked up in the second half right where they left off by grabbing control in the third quarter. The Magic outscored the Celtics 35-26 in the period to take an 83-78 edge into the fourth quarter.
The Magic made 13 of 25 shots with four 3-pointers in the third period to grab control. And when they played well down the stretch, Orlando improved to 31-9 when leading after three quarters.
``We fight, and we’re going to weather the storm and keep playing our way and it just worked out,’’ Ross said through a voice made raspy by yelling in the postgame celebration. ``There were clutch moments for everybody, and everybody made a big play tonight. Nobody messed up or missed a big-play opportunity. We all put that effort forth and things bounced in our favor.’’
The only negative of the night was when prized second-year forward Jonathan Isaac left the game after taking a shot to the head. He finished with six points, three rebounds and a steal in nearly 22 minutes.
Orlando got to within 52-48 at intermission by closing the second quarter with seven straight points. An Augustin layup, a 3-pointer by Isaac off an Augustin feed and a Gordon drive to the rim helped the Magic take the momentum into the locker room at halftime.
Vucevic almost single-handedly kept the Magic within striking distance in the early going. He had nine of the team’s first 16 field goals, seven of its first 19 rebounds and 19 of its first 41 points.
``I know for Vooch – we were just talking – it’s been a lifetime for him and really dark stretches for him, so for him to get in and our team to get this it means a lot,’’ Ross said.
After the postgame celebration with the water and the team dinner at a Boston-area restaurant, Vucevic admitted that there might be some water works of his own when he contemplates the magnitude of Sunday’s moment. Finally, at long last his dreams of leading the Magic to the playoffs after six years of struggling, had come true.
``Almost, I’ve got to admit,’’ Vucevic said when asked if he shed any tears of joy. ``Tonight, once it settles down and it hits me, I might (cry). When I look back at everything, it might just hit me really hard. … I’ve always wanted to be a part of the team that was going to take the Magic back to the playoffs. So, this is amazing. It’s been a great year, but it’s not done yet.’’
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