Magic's Closing Lineup Clicking

Weekend Wins Gave Team Added Confidence
by John Denton

DETROIT – Like a baseball team possessing an all-star closer to successfully finish off games, the Orlando Magic have developed a solid closing group that has allowed them to be good late in close games and even occasionally rally for come-from-behind victories.

Of course, that was the case last weekend when the Magic outplayed the Boston Celtics and the Houston Rockets in two fourth quarters, allowing them to grab a couple of stirring home victories.

Whereas the Magic usually open games with Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, D.J. Augustin and Jonathan Isaac, they often replace Isaac with the offensive firepower of guard Terrence Ross to close them out. Using primarily that grouping, Orlando outscored Boston 33-26 in Saturday’s fourth quarter for a two-point victory. On Sunday, that group ripped off a game-turning 16-4 run and used a 30-21 edge in the fourth quarter to beat the Rockets.

``We’re definitely playing with a lot of confidence and we’re growing a rhythm together,’’ said Ross, who had nine fourth-quarter points on Saturday and eight final-quarter points on Sunday. ``I think that the more situations that we get together, the more that we will grow and build from it. Right now, I think we’re just in a good place. … We always feel like we can come back and win, but it’s just about making the right plays and capitalizing on your opportunities down the stretch.’’

The numbers in ``close’’ games – defined by the NBA as scores being within five points in the final five minutes – have been good thus far for the Magic. In ``close’’ games, the Magic are 13-11 for the 11th-best winning percentage in the league. Their 13 wins in ``close’’ games are sixth most in the NBA.

Orlando’s closing group of Augustin, Fournier, Ross, Gordon and Vucevic came into Monday having played together in 28 games and over 138 minutes. That five-man pairing has an offensive rating of 108.1 (points per 100 possessions) and a defensive rating of 94.5. Their plus-13.7 net rating is the highest of any Magic grouping that has played at least 100 minutes together.

``I don’t want to say anything because I keep jinxing the group playing together, but if you look at the numbers, they have played well together offensively and defensively,’’ Magic head coach Steve Clifford said. ``It’s a good, balanced lineup.’’

BAMBA CLOSER TO BEING BACK: Rookie center Mo Bamba missed a fourth straight game on Wednesday in Detroit because of a sore left foot, but he still took a positive step toward returning to action.

Bamba went through all of Orlando’s drills during the morning shoot-around session and then he stayed after to get in some extra individual work with the Magic’s assistant coaches. Prior to Wednesday’s game, Bamba went through his normal shooting routines and got more treatment on his improving left foot but did not dress for the game.

Bamba, 20, missed the final game of last week’s road trip in Utah and then didn’t play in weekend victories over Boston and Houston because of minor soreness in the outside of his left foot. An MRI showed no structural damage in the foot and the Magic have proceeded with caution to make sure the injury isn’t a reoccurring one for the 7-footer.

``He feels better. He did everything this morning in shootaround and he’s going to do more contact (on Thursday) and then we’ll take it from there,’’ Clifford said. ``He’s definitely closer to playing, but again, we don’t want to rush him back just because he feels a little better.’’

HOMETOWN PRIDE: Wes Iwundu has always made his hometown of Houston proud, whether he was a basketball standout at Westfield High School, playing collegiately at Kansas State University or in the NBA contributing selflessly to the Orlando Magic.

On Sunday, he disappointed his hometown in a big-time way – not that Iwundu was bothered in any way in doing so.

When the Magic withstood an offensive onslaught from star guard James Harden and toppled the Rockets for their second defeat of a powerhouse team in as many nights, Iwundu was right in the middle of it with his gritty defense and fighting spirit. While Harden tied some NBA history with his 16thstraight 30-point game and pumped in 38, he struggled mightily to do so. When Orlando’s on-ball defense – led by Evan Fournier and Iwundu – held Harden to 11-of-32 shooting and an abysmal one of 17 from 3-point range, Orlando was able to rally for a 116-109 victory.

Considering his Houston roots, the victory was especially sweet for Iwundu, a second-year player known for his willingness to do the dirty work defensively. Not that his effort on Sunday made some of his friends and family back in Houston happy.

``A lot of my family and friends were watching the game, so I did receive a lot of text messages – a lot of upset texts that we beat the hometown team, but what can I say?’’ Iwundu said with a chuckle. ``But it was a great feeling and I want to keep building off a game like that.’’

Iwundu enjoyed getting to play against the Rockets and battle Harden, who is far and away the NBA’s leader in scoring. The Magic stuck to a plan of putting Fournier and Iwundu on the league’s reigning MVP, both held their own and gave Harden fits most of the night.

According to NBA.com tracking statistics, Fournier closely contested 14 shots on the night – 10 of them 3-point shots – and had one pass deflection. Iwundu contested four 3-point shots and had one of Orlando’s seven pass deflections. Harden missed his first six 3-point shots and his final 10 tries and the 16 misses from 3-point range tied an NBA record.

``Especially with the win; anytime that we win, it’s a good day. But to stop a great player like James Harden on the offensive end, it was great,’’ Iwundu said. ``I think he still had, like, 38 (points), which is crazy, but we made it tough; it was a tough 38 and we came out with the win. At the end of the day, we did the job of getting things done.’’

Iwundu grew up in Houston rooting for the Rockets and dreaming of someday playing in the NBA. On Sunday night, he played a major role in beating his hometown team and frustrating their superstar player. Admittedly, it’s a night he won’t soon forget.

``It’s like another thing to cross off my bucket list, playing against my hometown team,’’ a smiling Iwundu said. ``To win and make an impact on the game, it felt good, especially being able to hold James Harden to a tough game. I think we did everything that we needed to do as a team to get that win.’’

UP NEXT: Wednesday’s game started another difficult stretch for the Magic, who will play 10 games over an 18-night stretch. Orlando is scheduled to practice on Thursday prior to hosting its third home/home back-to-back set of a games of the season. The Magic will host the much-improved Brooklyn Nets on Friday and the surging Milwaukee Bucks and superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo on Saturday.

In the two previous home/home back-to-backs this season, the Magic swept the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks on Nov. 17-18 and then beat the Celtics and Rockets this past weekend.

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