Magic Crush Raptors at Amway Center

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

ORLANDO – Some seven weeks ago, when the Orlando Magic sat perilously at 2-6 and were mired in a four-game losing streak, they went into San Antonio and confidently rolled to a victory that kick-started their best run of basketball of the season.

Similarly, the Magic hobbled into Friday in the throes another unsightly four-game skid and had the unenviable task of facing superstar forward Kawhi Leonard and the East-leading Toronto Raptors. Similarly, the Magic responded to the challenge with another breathtakingly dominant performance to take apart an elite, title-contending foe.

Down 10 points early in the night, the Magic flipped the game completely around with a somewhat unthinkable 54-16 run over the second and third quarters and rode a stellar, do-everything performance from center Nikola Vucevic for a 116-87 defeat of Toronto.

``When we lock in,’’ guard Jonathon Simmons said, pausing for effect, ``we can play with anybody in this league. But we have to lock in every night. We’re the type of team where we can’t have any slippage.’’

Down 40-33 midway through the second period, Orlando used a run for the ages for a complete about-face that decided this one long before the final horn. Over the final six minutes of the second period and the first 10 minutes of the third quarter, the Magic outscored the Raptors 54-16. That surge allowed Orlando to go from down seven to up 31.

A sellout crowd of 18,846 at the Amway Center saw the Magic (15-19) win for the first time since Dec. 15. Also, an Orlando squad that has curiously struggled at the Amway Center all season won in the state-of-the-art facility for the first time since Nov. 18 to improve to 9-11 in home games.

Vucevic, Orlando’s most dominant player all season, snapped out of a mini-slump with 30 points, 20 rebounds and eight assists. The Magic’s unquestioned MVP through the first 34 games drilled 12 of 17 shots and six of eight free throws and narrowly missed posting the third triple-double of his career. He was a plus-33 on the scoreboard in his 33 minutes on the floor.

``That was a very, very good performance by us on both ends – one of our best games, for sure, playing against one of the best teams if not the best team in the NBA right now,’’ said Vucevic, who became just the ninth player since 1975-76 with at least 30 points, 20 rebounds and eight assists. ``I’m sure there was a little bit (of desperation). We knew that we can’t keep losing, especially at home. Extending this losing stretch would make it hard for us to recover. So, guys individually, understood that it was time for us to turn things around. Everything clicked for us on both ends.’’

Added forward Aaron Gordon, who had nine points, nine rebounds and four assists and smothered Leonard to the tune of seven-of-19 shooting and 21 points: ``This definitely tells you that we don’t like to lose. We definitely had a bad taste in our mouths after that last loss (on Wednesday) and we showed up tonight.’’

The return of Vucevic’s all-star-level play was a welcomed sight. The team’s leader all season in scoring and rebounding, Vucevic missed three days and a game following the birth of his first child on Dec. 17. In his first three games back from that layoff, Vucevic shot just 41.1 percent from the floor and 27.2 percent from 3-point range. On Friday, he looked like a much more confident and aggressive player in demolishing Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam.

In taking down the Raptors (26-11), the Magic shot 47.3 percent from the floor, drilled nine 3-pointers and solved their free throw issues by getting to the line 22 times (with 19 makes).

Even more impressive was an Orlando defense that held the Raptors to just 29.5 percent shooting. That’s the fifth-lowest shooting percentage against the Magic in their 30-year history and the sixth time they have held a foe to less than 30 percent shooting. Making that number even more impressive was the fact that Toronto made eight of its first 12 shots to build a 19-9 edge, but the Magic held it to 24 percent shooting the rest of the way.

``All five guys on the court were on a string and wanting to help each other,’’ said Simmons, who was elevated to the back-up point guard role and contributed two points, six assists and four rebounds. ``We had some scramble situations where guys had to help each other, and we did that. Now, we have to do it every night.’’

By losing, Toronto – which was without Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas – was knocked out of the top spot in the NBA record-wise and it now trails the Milwaukee Bucks.

``We didn’t make no shots tonight,’’ said Leonard, who has twice failed to reach his scoring average (26.7 points per game, fifth in the NBA) against the Magic this season and was a minus-27 in 29 minutes on Friday. ``We didn’t play too well defensively either in the half court. They got a lot of easy layups and open shots. You always have to give them credit. They came out with energy and kept in the game when we were up by (10) points and they kept going.’’

For whatever reason, the Magic have been their best all season against the NBA’s top teams. Orlando now owns victories against Boston, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Miami, Toronto and the Los Angeles Lakers (twice). Orlando avenged a 93-91 loss to Toronto from Nov. 20.

``We’ve proven that when we play well, we can play with anybody,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said on Friday morning. ``We have to lock into us.’’

D.J. Augustin continued his stellar play for the Magic by scoring 17 points and handing out six assists. Jonathan Isaac and Terrence Ross each scored 14 points, while Wes Iwundu chipped in 10 off the bench.

In an effort to improve the team’s play off the bench, Clifford altered his rotation on Friday. He replaced reserve point guard Jerian Grant with Simmons at lead guard. Also, Clifford played Iwundu off the bench at forward, giving Orlando another defensive-minded player in the second unit. Iwundu has long been a favorite of Clifford’s and he was proud of the grit that the forward contributed on Friday.

``I thought he had good energy and he helps us get out and run, which we need to do more,’’ Clifford said. ``He is a good, versatile defender and he is very smart. Whether he plays or not, he is in here every day doing extra (work). He is very good with team things. His problem is that he has veteran guys ahead of him; it’s not that he’s not a good player.’’

Orlando came into Friday riding a four-game losing streak – tied for their longest skid of the season. After winning consecutive games in Mexico City, the Magic were routed by San Antonio, suffered lackluster losses to Chicago and Miami and fell in overtime on Wednesday against Phoenix. On Friday, they looked looked like a completely different team.

Up nine at the half, the Magic didn’t rest on what they accomplished in the early going and completely smothered Toronto in a runaway third quarter. Orlando opened the third period with a 28-8 burst and seconds later extended its lead to a staggering 31 points. The Magic’s sound play on both ends of the floor left them in possession of a 92-63 lead through three periods.

Vucevic was at his do-everything best in the first half, throttling Toronto for 18 points, 11 rebounds and three assists. He made seven of nine shots, but his best sequence came when he sensed a double-team coming and passed to the opposite corner where Isaac buried a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired. That three put Orlando up 47-44 – its first lead since being up 5-4 in the early going.

``He was great. I mean, he was great,’’ Clifford said of his starting center. ``One thing that he does and it’s a big deal is when (the Raptors) get behind they downsize and they can work their way back into games. Vooch was good enough defensively to hold his own and at the other end, he crushes them. That’s the third or fourth game he’s done that.’’

The Magic will be back in action on Sunday afternoon when they host the Detroit Pistons in a 3:30 p.m. tipoff. Immediately after that game, the Magic depart for a six-game, 11-night road trip that will see them play in all four U.S. time zones.

The Magic are well aware that Friday’s victory will matter little if they revert to their sluggish ways come Sunday against Blake Griffin and the Pistons.

``It’s a huge win, but at the end of the day it’s still just one win,’’ Vucevic said. ``If we don’t take off from here, this won’t mean much for us. We enjoy this and (on Saturday) we get back to work and get ready for Detroit. That’s another huge game for us because (the Pistons) are a team that we’ve already lost to once at home. And if we get back to getting some wins, that’s a team that we might see at the end of the year trying to get a playoff spot. So, that’s a huge game for us. And if we want this (Toronto) game to mean anything, we have to start a streak.’’

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