Magic Rally Past Heat, Move Into Eighth Place

Postgame Report: Magic 104, Heat 99
by John Denton

MIAMI – The formula that the Orlando Magic used to craft the first 5-0 homestand in the 30-year history of the franchise over the previous two weeks – stellar ball-movement and offensive balance combined with some smothering defense – made the trip to South Florida with the team on Tuesday night.

When it did, it allowed the Magic to rally in the second half, capture one of the franchise’s most significant victories in the past seven years and vault into the top eight of the Eastern Conference standings.

Making the night even sweeter for the Magic, they delivered a crippling blow to the rival Miami Heat when all-star center Nikola Vucevic scored 24 points, second-year forward Jonathan Isaac chipped in 19 more and they dominated in the second half of a stirring 104-99 victory at Miami’s American Airlines Arena.

Down as much as 17 in a shaky second quarter and trailing by nine at intermission, Orlando (37-38) won the game by virtue of a 62-48 second half in which it dominated on both ends of the floor. While the Magic drilled a dazzling 53.8 percent of their shots and connected on nine threes in the second half, the Heat shot just 16 of 44 from the floor (36.3 percent) and six of 21 from 3-point range (28.5 percent) over the final 24 minutes.

``I think all-around we played well, and we played a good offensive second half against a good defensive team,’’ said head coach Steve Clifford, who has the Magic in playoff position after the franchise being outside the postseason the past six years. ``I thought our offensive energy and execution were better in the second half. We showed a lot of fight, down 17 in a hard place to play and (the Heat are) very difficult to play, and the guys hung in there and a bunch of them made big plays.’’

The Magic went into the night trailing Miami (36-38) by a half-game but emerged a half-game ahead of the rival Heat for the No. 8 seed – and the final playoff spot – in the Eastern Conference standings. Later, about an hour following the Magic’s win, Detroit (37-37) lost its third straight game in Denver. The Magic now trail the No. 7 Pistons by just a half-game and the two teams square off in the Motor City on Thursday.

The Magic locked up the season series at 3-1 over the Heat and nabbed the potentially important tiebreaker should the two teams finish the season with identical records.

Out of the playoffs since 2012 and seemingly headed that direction again some two weeks ago, the Magic have saved their season with a six-game winning streak at just the right time. It’s the franchise’s first six-game win spree since Dec. 23, 2010 to Jan. 8, 2011 when they won nine straight.

``That (six-game winning streak) is huge because we’re fighting for a playoff spot and to win six is really huge to give us a big advantage,’’ said Vucevic, who made 10 of 18 shots and two of five 3-pointers while also chipping in 16 rebounds, five assists and a block. ``We’ve just got to keep it up. Obviously, we were in a little bit of a whole, so these six (wins) only put us (a half-game up on Miami), but there’s still a lot of games to play. A lot can change after every win or loss, so we’ve got to stick with it.’’

The Magic came into the night first in the NBA in overall defensive rating (102.4) since Jan. 31, and their gritty play on that end of the floor helped them to defeat the Heat in Tuesday’s must-win. While the Magic managed to shoot just 41.6 percent from the floor, they dug in defensively and limited Miami to just 41.9 percent from the floor.

``We all know that when we play defense, that’s when we win,’’ said guard Evan Fournier, who chipped in 11 points, three assists and two 3-pointers. ``We’re not a team that’s going to win offensively, so it all starts on defense. And we played well defensively again tonight.’’

Just as they did a night earlier in an absolute demolition of the star-studded Philadelphia 76ers, the Magic grabbed control of the game with a 34-19 third-quarter performance. Orlando struggled mightily in the early going and trailed 40-23 at one point, but it was hard to tell that with the confidence that Orlando played with in calmly grabbing control in the 12 minutes just after halftime. Many of the same shots that the Magic missed early in the game, they drilled in the second half to burn a Miami defense willing to surrender open looks from 3-point range.

All five of Orlando’s starters reached double figures, led, as usual, by Vucevic’s 55th double-double of the season. Isaac, Orlando’s prized second-year forward, scored 11 of his 19 points in the game-turning third quarter. In many ways, it felt like a coming-of-age moment for the 21-year-old standout.

``That’s what was going through my head – just continue to shoot the ball when you’re open,’’ said Isaac, who shrugged off starts of one-of-five (overall) and zero-of-four (3-point range) to make seven of his final eight tries and three of four from beyond the arc. ``When I got that first one to fall from the corner it just felt like everything opened up for me. So, I’ve definitely seen a growth and maturity in myself through the course of this season and it’s a beautiful thing.’’

D.J. Augustin (17 points, seven assists and two 3-pointers), Aaron Gordon (14 points and 10 rebounds) and top reserve Terrence Ross (10 points and three 3-pointers) were solid throughout, allowing Orlando to push its lead to as much as eight points in the second half after trailing for the first 31 minutes of the game.

Stressed Vucevic: ``We just stuck with it because we knew it was going to be a long game. We knew they were going to come out very aggressive. For us, it was a second night of a back-to-back and sometimes you start off a little sluggish and it takes a little time. That’s also risky in these games because (the opponent) can build a big lead, which they did but we cut it in half. Then, we were able to regroup in the second half and win the game.’’

Dion Waiters scored 26 points and hit five 3-pointers for Miami, while Josh Richardson scored 17 points and connected on three 3-pointers. Retiring Heat legend Dwyane Wade had 22 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, but he made just seven of 17 shots.

Orlando came into Tuesday riding especially high after sweeping a five-game home stand for the first time in franchise history. After thumping Cleveland, Atlanta and New Orleans and rallying past Memphis, the Magic notched one of their most impressive victories of the season by demolishing the 76ers, 119-98.

Tuesday’s victory was doubly important for the Magic what with it giving them a 3-1 edge in the season series. If the Magic and Heat finish with identical records at season’s end, Orlando would get the nod thanks to its regular-season work.

In the 30 years of games between the two Sunshine State rivals, Orlando has won the season series 10 times. Miami has won it 14 times, while it’s finished tied seven times. Also, the Magic went undefeated (2-0) in Miami this season – just the sixth time that’s ever happened.

Tuesday served as Wade’s 53rd and final regular-season game against the Magic – if he ignores his inspired play late in the season and sticks with his plan to retire at season’s end. Also, former Heat standout Chris Bosh – whose career was cut short by life-threatening blood clots – had his No. 1 jersey retired by Miami.

That ceremony resulted in halftime lasting 35 minutes – about 21 minutes longer than normal. Clifford had the advantage of experience as the Heat retired Alonzo Mourning’s jersey when the Magic were in South Florida in 2010 – another Orlando victory. Fournier, for one, feels like the extended halftime allowed the Magic to recover following their slow start.

Down as much as 17 points in the second quarter and by nine at intermission, the Magic used a huge rally in the third quarter for a second straight night in a row. Dared to shoot from the perimeter in the first half, Orlando confidently hit those shots in the third period to build a 76-70 advantage heading into the fourth quarter. That had to spark confidence among the Magic, who came into Tuesday 27-9 this season when leading after three periods.

Five different Magic players drilled 3-pointers in the third period, led by Isaac making his first three shots from beyond the arc. The second-year forward missed his first four tries in the first half, but he shot the ball with confidence in the third while scoring 11 in the period.

``He’s the X-factor, man, that’s what I told (the media) earlier in the season,’’ Fournier said of Isaac’s ability to make shots from afar. ``I actually got onto him in the game because he started really slow. He shot the ball (in the first half), but he was missing, and we told him to keep shooting and he did. He was such an X-factor tonight. Nineteen points and so gritty on defense, he played a helluva game.’’

Orlando made 12 of 21 shots in the third and seven of 11 3-point shots. It was similar to Monday when the Magic wiped out a halftime deficit against the 76ers with a dominant 32-17 third-period performance.

The Magic trailed 51-42 at the half and, quite frankly, they were fortunate to be that close after the manner in which they struggled on both ends of the floor early in the game. Orlando missed eight of its first 10 shots, connected on just 26.9 percent in the first quarter and trailed by as much as 17 points.

On this night, though, the Magic would not be denied. Riding the inside production of Vucevic, Isaac’s steady stroke from the outside and an unyielding defense, the Magic notched the franchise’s most significant victory in seven seasons.

``We’ve fought for this all year and now we control our own destiny,’’ Vucevic said of being in playoff position with seven games remaining. ``Now, it’s on us to do what is necessary to stay there and keep us in that top eight and maybe even go for more. The teams in front of us aren’t that far away, so maybe we can even do more (by moving up further in the standings).’’

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.

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