Magic Rally Past Rockets, Win Second Straight

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Just days ago, when the Orlando Magic were stuck in the throes of an unsightly four-game losing streak, center Nikola Vucevic spoke about how things – whether good and bad – can turn around rather quickly in the NBA.

Vucevic was speaking from experience as two weeks earlier the Magic broke out of an entirely different four-game skid with stirring victories against the Toronto Raptors and the Detroit Pistons. If only the Magic could go back home and notch a couple of victories against elite competition, Vucevic said, things once again would turn quickly in the Magic’s favor.

Have they ever turned around for the Magic after they remarkably rallied twice in the past 48 hours on the Away Center parquet to nab stirring wins likely deemed to be impossible a week ago?
Less than 24 hours after coming alive in the fourth period to topple the Boston Celtics, Orlando withstood an early onslaught by James Harden and ripped off a game-turning 16-4 run in the heart of the final period to stun the Houston Rockets 116-109.

``The feeling that we have now compared to two days ago it’s not even close, but that’s the way this league is with so many games in a short amount of time,’’ said Vucevic, who made all four of his fourth-quarter shots and scored 10 of his 22 points in the final period. ``Things can turn around quickly. That’s why you cannot ever get too high or too low. We knew that we had it in us.’’

Down 105-98 with 4:31 to play, Orlando scored the game’s next eight points on a dunk by Vucevic, a nifty three-point play by Terrence Ross and a 3-pointer from the left wing by Ross. Harden briefly stopped the run with a runner in the lane, but Orlando was far from finished, getting 3-pointers from Evan Fournier and D.J. Augustin and another low-post move from Vucevic to seal the come-from-behind victory.

Whereas injury-ravaged Houston (24-18) leaned heavily on Harden – who notched his 16th straight 30-point game and narrowly missed his seventh triple-double of the season with 38 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds – the Magic relied on a solid team effort to claim yet another victory against one of the NBA’s upper-crust teams.

``It was a great team game for us,’’ said Aaron Gordon, who had 22 points, eight rebounds and five assists – the last one being an inside-out pass to Ross for the 3-pointer that put Orlando into the lead for good at 106-105. ``We executed the game plan and we can still get better.’’

Like Vucevic, coach Steve Clifford – a veteran of 19 NBA seasons – wondered aloud earlier in the week about what wins against Boston and Houston could do for the Magic after they limped home from an extended road trip with four consecutive losses. To see how his team hung around through its early-game struggles and clawed to two victories with thrilling fourth quarters, Clifford said it is further proof of how quickly fortunes can change in the NBA.

``Oh yeah, (they can turn around quickly) if you have the right attitude,’’ Clifford said. ``You know, (former NBA coach) Jeff Van Gundy used to say all the time, `It can go from good to bad or really good to really bad really quick.’ So, you know, that’s this league.’’

Orlando made 12 of 18 shots in the fourth period and drilled three 3-pointers. Conversely, Houston hit just seven of 22 shots and missed all eight of its 3-point shots over the final 12 minutes. Harden, who shot 11 for 32 for the game and made just one of 17 threes, was just two of nine in the final period. He came into the night having made at least five 3-pointers in each of his past 12 games, but on Sunday he missed his first six attempts from 3-point range and his final 10 from beyond the arc. He tied an NBA record for the most 3-point misses in a game with 16, equaling the low set by Portland’s Damon Stoudamire in 2005.

``We just weren’t focused the entire four quarters and give them credit – they made shots,’’ said Harden, who tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1971-72) and Kobe Bryant (2003) for the most consecutive 30-point games since 1972 at 16. ``We didn’t have our focus like we’ve been having these last few weeks. They caught us off guard.’’

Fournier, the Magic’s primary defender against Harden all night, scored 19 and grabbed five rebounds. Ross scored 17 off the bench, eight of them coming in the fourth period. Afterward, Fournier said he just tried to make things difficult with Harden by crowding him on his 3-point shots. Admittedly, he said the Magic were fortunate that Harden simply missed shots that he usually makes.

``Exhausting,’’ Fournier said of guarding Harden for most of his 37 minutes on the floor. ``The guy is terrific. He’s so good at drawing fouls and sometimes it puts you out of position. You want to get into him and put pressure and be physical, but he’s so good at making contact and drawing fouls and you can’t really give it to him. You have to be smart, make sure that you don’t foul him and hope that he misses, really.’’

Last season, Harden burned the Magic for the most points ever scored in a triple-double in NBA history when he poured in 60 points in Houston. Limiting Harden to 38 points – two below his average over his previous 10 games before Sunday – was sweet revenge for Fournier.

``I feel like overall we did a good job, but the guy still had 38,’’ joked Fournier, whose Magic face Harden again in two weeks in Houston.

Second-year forward Wes Iwundu, a Houston native, shared the defensive responsibilities on Harden with Fournier. He finished with eight points, four rebounds, a steal and a block in nearly 15 minutes of action.

Austin Rivers, an Orlando native, had 25 points, while Clint Capela had 17 points and 10 rebounds and Daniel House Jr. chipped in 14 for the Rockets.

A night earlier, the Magic edged the Celtics 105-103 at the Amway Center. Orlando won for a second time this season against Boston when Gordon (28 points) and Terrence Ross (25 points) had big fourth-quarter performances.

After outscoring Boston 64-52 in Saturday’s second half and 33-26 in the fourth quarter, Orlando did much the same thing on Sunday against a Houston team that had won eight of 11 coming in. Against the Rockets, the Magic held a 64-50 second-half advantage and a 30-21 edge in the all-important fourth period.

``It was a tough game, just like (Saturday) night,’’ said Ross, who had 17 fourth-quarter points in the back-to-back wins. ``We did a good job of staying together, playing for each other and making big plays down the stretch.’’

For a second time this season, Orlando won both games in a home/home back-to-back set of games. They beat the Lakers and Knicks on Nov. 17 and 18 and stepped it up with the two wins over the playoff-bound Celtics and Rockets. The Magic, who are now 12-11 in games where they are designated as the home team, has its final home/home back-to-back of the season on Friday and Saturday when they host Brooklyn and Milwaukee.

Orlando is now a solid 10-8 this season in back-to-back sets of games. Oddly, the Magic are 7-2 in the first night of those back-to-backs but just 3-6 on the second night.

Within seven at halftime despite their poor early shooting, the Magic hung tough in the third quarter and rallied to take an 86-85 late in the period on two free throws by Ross. Harden would respond by sinking three free throws to put Houston back ahead 88-86 by the end of the third, but the Magic at least put themselves in position with their strong play on both ends of the floor in the third.

Harden needed just three periods to score 30 points, but his shooting was otherwise abysmal against an Orlando defense that tried crowding him on perimeter shots. The reigning MVP – and the heavy favorite to win the prestigious award again – has had to carry a heavy load because of injuries to Chris Paul (hamstring), Eric Gordon (bruised knee) and Brandon Knight (sore knee). The Rockets were also without veteran big man Nene on Sunday because he was being rested in the first of their back-to-back set of games.

Withstanding that Harden onslaught allowed the Magic to pull off some late-game heroics for a second straight night. After the thrilling win, Fournier thought about how far the Magic had come in terms of their spirit. From losing four in a row on the road to winning two straight against elite teams, the Magic are once again filled with hope and energy, he said.

``It feels good, man, really, really good,’’ Fournier said. ``It means a lot to have two wins against two really good teams. It feels good to be back home. How do we respond from this will be the question?’’

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.