By John Denton Jan. 19, 2018
BOSTON – In NBA locker rooms, the only thing more disliked than, say, country music is the proverbial moral victory. Players and coaches alike despise the notion of taking any sort of satisfaction or sense of accomplishment out of a game where their team played well throughout, only to lose at the end.
While all those things certainly ring true with the Orlando Magic, there’s no denying this: They have the look and feel of a different sort of team of late – even if their record suggests otherwise and they’ve been forced to try and stomach a couple of moral victories.
In their last three games – two of which ended in narrow, heartbreaking losses to playoff powers Cleveland and Washington – the Magic have closely resembled the team that started the season with a flurry and one that the franchise felt could compete for a playoff berth. In beating the star-studded Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday and pushing the Wizards and the Cavaliers to the brink over the past week, the Magic (13-32) have shown grit, togetherness and a true fighting spirit.
Still, they want and expect more from themselves – something that is a sign of their growing confidence and reluctance to settle to simply playing hard.
``We’re frustrated because we’re playing well these last three games, and winning just one of those last three games is kind of tough,’’ admitted Orlando’s Elfrid Payton, who had a potential go-ahead layup rim out in the final seconds of Orlando’s gut-wrenching 104-103 loss to Cleveland on Thursday.
``We’ve had three games in a row where we feel like we’ve played well, but we’re not into moral victories,’’ added the Magic point guard, who had 19 points, eight assists and two steals to key the strong effort in Cleveland. ``But, especially at this time of the season, we feel like we’ve got to win these games and find a way to pull these games out as much as possible.’’
The Magic played about as well as possible in Thursday’s second half, using a 33-13 start to the second half to knot the game at 80 against LeBron James, Kevin Love, Isaiah Thomas and the Cavaliers. Cleveland made nine 3-pointers in the first half to put the Magic into a hole as large as 23 points, but Orlando would not go away, cranking up its defense and its running game to surge back into things.
``At halftime, we talked about us storming back in the fourth quarter (against Cleveland on Jan. 6) in our building and this time we had to do it in the third quarter and that’s exactly what we did,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. ``I was proud of their play. … I just thought we played harder in the second half than we did to start the game. We just picked up our intensity in the second half.’’
Orlando made 13 of 21 shots with three 3-pointers in the third period to pave the way for the 33-17 advantage that set the stage for the fourth-quarter heroics. In the second half, Orlando connected on 51.2 percent of its shots, while holding the Cavs to a dismal 32.5 percent and one-of-17 from 3-point range. James had just six points after intermission and his team was a minus-20 on the scoreboard when he was on the floor 17 ½ minutes of the second half.
Shelvin Mack, who played in place of the suspended Arron Afflalo on Thursday and will likely do the same on Sunday when the Magic face the Celtics in Boston, seemed to have put the Magic in position for a victory in the final minute. When Mack converted a floater with 31.5 seconds remaining, Orlando clung to a 103-102 lead. That advantage would disappear following two free throws from Thomas and Payton’s miss in the final seconds sealed the Magic’s fate.
Despite the crushing loss, Mack sees something special brewing of late for Orlando.
``I think we’re slowly starting to figure things out,’’ said Mack, who made all five of his shots on Thursday and scored 10 points. ``It’s been tough with a lot of injuries and guys in and out, but we’re slowly starting to get a groove with one another and give ourselves a chance to win. That’s all you can ask for in the NBA – having a chance to win with two or three minutes to go and see what happens.’’
What Orlando hopes will happen more in the future is it will find ways to win those games. Then, and only then, the moral victories will become victories and the Magic will have reason to truly celebrate.
``It felt really good to (play well in the third quarter), but we’ve got to do it over a full 48 minutes and not just do it in stints and runs,’’ Mack stressed. ``But I feel like we’ve got a chance to be a good team and get some momentum going.’’
Added Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who scored 12 of his 17 points and grabbed six of his 11 rebounds in Thursday’s second half: ``We’re the same team (as when it was struggling), but we’ve found ourselves. We’ll see how it goes against Boston (on Sunday). We battled and we really played hard and we’ve just got to get one now in Boston.’’
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.