MEXICO CITY – In any language, el Magic result ser perfecta en México.
For those not quite up on their Spanish, that translates loosely into the Orlando Magic proving to be perfect in Mexico with a second gritty victory in a row – this time with some stellar late-game execution on Saturday night.
The Magic won once again in Mexico City by coming alive late in an otherwise ugly game to defeat the Utah Jazz 96-89 in final-game action of the NBA Mexico City Games 2018. After scoring just 55 points in the game’s first three quarters, Orlando pumped in 41 in the fourth to rally past the playoff-tested Jazz.
``This year, most importantly, we have more confidence in ourselves and even when things don’t go our way – we struggled early, we weren’t making shots and the other team was making shots – but we stuck with it and try to find a way,’’ said standout center Nikola Vucevic, who had 15 points, 19 rebounds and two blocked shots against Utah’s Rudy Gobert (six points, 13 rebounds and two blocks). ``There were a couple of times where we got down double digits, but we just stuck with it. We stuck with what works for us and we found a way.’’
Orlando (14-15) got huge lifts from reserves Terrence Ross (19 points, three 3-pointers and eight-of-nine shooting) and Mo Bamba (nine points, four rebounds and two assists) early in the fourth and Evan Fournier (24 points), Vucevic, D.J. Augustin (11 points and five assists) and Aaron Gordon (eight points) came alive late in the night to seal the second consecutive victory south of the U.S. border.
Shooting a dismal 38.6 percent through three periods and staring at a four-point deficit, the Magic incredibly hit 12 of their first 15 shots of the fourth period to blow past the Jazz (14-16). In the totality of the final quarter, Orlando made 12 of 16 shots (75 percent), five of seven 3-pointers (71.4 percent) and 12 of 14 free throws (85.7 percent). The period looked nothing like the first three quarters at all, but it certainly was a thing of beauty to the Magic.
Orlando also snapped a four-game losing streak to Utah. Some 13 months ago, the Jazz beat Orlando 125-85 at the Amway Center for the Magic’s worst home loss in franchise history. Now, it’s as if the Magic are a different team and certainly a vastly improved one.
``The difference in this team is our attitude,’’ said Augustin, one of the heroes of Thursday’s defeat of Chicago. ``In the past, we’d lose a few games and we’d keep losing because we’d get down on ourselves. Now, if we lose one or two, but we’ll still fight back and get a good win against a good team.
``I think we’re tired of losing and tired of being out of the playoff talk and tired of not being there at the end of the season,’’ Augustin added. ``We don’t want to be like that this year.’’
The Magic came to Mexico on Tuesday clearly at a crossroads in their season. They had dropped three in a row, two of which were in lopsided fashion. However, the Magic found a way to gut out a close victory on Thursday against the Chicago Bulls and did the same on Saturday with a 41-30 scoring advantage in the decisive fourth quarter.
``Like I always say, this team plays with a lot of resilience,’’ Ross raved afterward. ``We could have had a lot of excuses out there tonight – fatigue, the arena or whatever – but we found a way to get it done.’’
Orlando won despite turning the ball over 26 times – 11 of which came in the first 12 minutes of the game. The Magic have been a stellar road team all season, winning in Boston, San Antonio, Miami and Los Angeles. They were officially the home team for the two games in Mexico City, but both felt very much like road games because of the unfamiliar environment and whistling fans cheering for the opposition.
``Oh, the fight, definitely the fight,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said of his team’s fourth-quarter response following three quarters of struggles. ``We struggled offensively, but the guys hung in there and had a 41-30 (edge) in the fourth. Tonight, that ended up being the most important quarter.’’
Donovan Mitchell led Utah with 24 points, while power forward Derrick Favors chipped in 21 points. Ricky Rubio had 15 points and four assists, but he made only three of 14 field goals after the Magic defense wisely dared him to shoot.
After the two teams played mostly uninspired and even somewhat unwatchable basketball for three quarters, both seemed to come alive at the start of the fourth period. Down four at the start of the final period, the Magic drilled seven of their first eight shots to grab the lead. Bamba gave the Magic a huge lift in the period, attacking reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert with an array of moves. Bamba drilled a 3-pointer from the corner, sank two free throws and even converted a nifty layup back over his head – and over Gobert’s expansive reach – for a layup that put Orlando ahead 72-69.
Orlando opened the NBA Mexico City 2018 Games on Thursday by whipping the Chicago Bulls, 97-91. In that game, Vucevic and Fournier worked the two-man game to near perfection late in the night and Vucevic hit a jumper that proved to be the game-winner.
On Saturday, the Magic were again pushed to the limit in the final quarter and again they gutted out a game that they likely would have lost a season ago when they weren’t nearly as resilient.
``We knew that it was going to be a tough game because Utah doesn’t play high-scoring games and we knew we’d have to play them for 48 minutes,’’ Vucevic said. ``This was a huge win for us and a big trip for us. To finish 2-0 for us is huge.’’
Going into Saturday’s game, the Magic were hopeful that they would have an advantage over the Jazz because of their time already spent in Mexico City. The Magic arrived in Mexico City on Tuesday, allowing themselves time to adjust to the city’s 7,382-foot altitude. The Jazz didn’t get to Mexico City until Friday night, but coach Quin Snyder felt the Jazz wouldn’t have much trouble because of the 4,226 feet of altitude in Salt Lake City.
``I think the bigger thing is the altitude,’’ Clifford said. ``In this league, the guys are so accomplished, and they play in so many different facilities while growing up that I never think the building or the court is that big of a deal. But the altitude is. Speaking with the players, the first quarter was difficult and the first time they went into the game, those first five or six minutes were difficult. But once they adjusted, they were fine.’’
The Magic got seemingly no momentum from Augustin’s first-half-ending 3-point shot in the early stages of the third quarter. Utah scored the first eight points of the second half, led by as much as 11 and threatened to break the game open.
However, the Magic rallied in the middle of the third and headed into the fourth trailing just 59-55. It took the Magic 32 minutes to break 40 points, but once they did, they got their offense rolling. Orlando ripped off 10 straight points in the guts of the third, capped by a Ross put-back that knotted the score at 48.
The first half was mostly sloppy and sleepy as both teams struggled to make shots and repeatedly turned the ball over. However, Augustin – one of the heroes from Thursday’s defeat of Chicago – sent a charge into the game by burying a high-arching 3-pointer as the horn sounded. That shot, put up over the towering reach of Gobert, draw the Magic to within 35-33 at intermission.
In the end, none of the early ugliness, turnovers or missed shots. The Magic executed in the fourth quarter and found a way to win another close game. Fournier, who broke out of a mini-slump shooting the ball, feels the Magic don’t get the credit they deserve for playing consistently well in close games.
``I just feel like we don’t get enough credit as far as being a fighting team,’’ said Fournier, who made seven of 15 shots and two of seven 3-pointers. ``We’ve been in a lot of close games and we were in another one tonight and we were able to close it and win it.
``You know, it’s all about execution and being mentally tough,’’ Fournier said. ``We’ve been in hard situations before, but we’ve fought through it. I don’t know why people don’t mention it at all, but you would have to ask them. With the new coaching staff, it starts with (Clifford). He’s definitely a tough guy and it definitely (rubs off) on us, to be honest.’’
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.