ORLANDO – In the position that the Orlando Magic now find themselves – on the doorstep of the playoffs with just nine games and 18 days remaining in the regular season – each showdown the rest of the way takes on more and more significance.
That is the case largely because of the guile and grit that the Magic showed over the final 17 minutes of a game on Friday that likely saved their season.
Down 14 to start the fourth quarter after being badly outplayed by the plucky Memphis Grizzlies, the Magic crafted a stirring fourth-quarter rally and some clutch overtime play that ultimately might define the season.
Orlando used some fearless, in-your-face defense in the fourth period and some timely shot-making in overtime for a 123-119 defeat of the Grizzlies to delight a delirious Amway Center crowd of 18,025. Not only did it extend Magic (35-38) winning streaks of four games overall and six games in a row at home, it allowed them to surge within a half-game of the rival Miami Heat prior to play on Saturday night.
The come-from-behind win – from 17 points back late in the third period – was the largest rally in a victory this season. Also, it was Orlando’s ninth win when trailing after three periods – tied for the second-most comeback wins in the fourth quarter in the NBA. (Detroit is first with 11, while Houston also has nine).
Afterward, there was more relief about what the Magic avoided than there was jubilation over what they accomplished. They very well know that bigger battles lie ahead over the next 2 ½ weeks.
``I mean, it would have been an awful loss and it might have ended it,’’ said Magic hero Evan Fournier, who had the game-tying layup with 17.7 seconds left in regulation and scored seven of his 27 points in overtime. ``But, just because we won it, it doesn’t mean anything; it just means we can still believe (in making the playoffs), and we still have some big games left.’’
Truer words have never come out of the Magic locker room, especially considering the challenges dead ahead. Orlando wraps up its five-game home stand on Monday night against the star-studded Philadelphia 76ers, a surging squad that took a six-game winning streak into Saturday’s game in Atlanta.
A night later, the Magic will be in Miami to face a rested Heat team in a game that just might register as the most important game in Orlando’s history over the past seven seasons. Out of the playoffs each of the past six years and often well out of contention by the NBA All-Star Game, the Magic haven’t played many games with much on the line since 2012.
Against the hated Heat, the Magic will be in a game where they very well could vault themselves into the top-eight in the Eastern Conference. Making the game doubly important, a victory would allow Orlando to win the season series and control the tiebreaker that could be the determining factor should the two rivals finish with identical records on the night of April 10.
Fournier, who has played on losing teams for four seasons in Orlando, understands the magnitude of what’s to come for the Magic in the highly significant back-to-back set of games. Late Friday, however, he tried to sprinkle some perspective into the challenges ahead.
``Let’s just start with Philly,’’ a fatigued Fournier begged. ``It’s going to be hard, definitely.’’
Quite possibly as hard as what Orlando encountered on Friday against Memphis. The Grizzlies, who were playing without starters Mike Conley, Avery Bradley and Jaren Jackson Jr., shot 57.6 percent through three periods to lead by as many as 17 points. Defeat looked almost certain for a Magic team that had few answers over the first 36 minutes.
But Orlando finally clamped down defensively in the fourth, holding Memphis (five-of-18 shooting) and hot-shooting guard Tyler Dorsey (one-of-six shooting in the fourth, but 29 points in the game) in check over the fourth quarter. Newly signed point guard Michael Carter-Williams and Wes Iwundu locked down Dorsey in the final period with their gritty one-on-one defense.
That allowed Terrence Ross (31 points and eight 3-pointers in the game) and Fournier (nine-of-17 shooting for the game with three 3-pointers) to carry Orlando back into it. Fournier knotted things at 110 with a gutsy, left-handed layup over Memphis 7-footer Jonas Valanciunas (23 points and 24 rebounds) with 17.7 ticks remaining. In the extra period, Fournier (seven points) and Nikola Vucevic (four points) did most of the heavy lifting to allow the Magic to survive a tense overtime packed with seven lead changes.
``It was a great feeling in here (in the Magic locker room), but it really wasn’t even that hyped because we know that we still have a lot left to accomplish,’’ Iwundu said.
Now, though, the challenges only get bigger for the Magic. Head coach Steve Clifford loved the fight that his team showed when it was down and the calmness it displayed under pressure with the game on the line. Whether the Magic can find the same sort of success or not in the games ahead against Philadelphia and Miami will come down to a very simplistic formula, Clifford said.
``We talk about all this stuff about whether we can handle (the pressure of a playoff push), but what it will come down to is us playing well,’’ said the veteran head coach, who lauded Magic fans for the noise and energy that they provided on Friday throughout the furious fourth-quarter rally. ``It’s that simple. We’ll have to play well to win.’’
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