Postgame Report: Magic 101, Hawks 91
ORLANDO – In the spirit of college basketball unveiling the teams that will play in their NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday, the Orlando Magic utilized the ``survive and advance’’ tactic in an effort to stay in the NBA playoff race.
The Magic were far from being at their best on Sunday against the plucky Atlanta Hawks, but they used a strong start by all-star center Nikola Vucevic, a career-best scoring night by forward Wes Iwundu and an injection of defense from newly-acquired guard Michael Carter-Williams to keep pace with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.
Knowing that the rival Heat had won earlier in the day, Orlando got 13 straight points from Vucevic to open the game, a career-best 14 points from Iwundu and some gritty defense to defeat the Hawks 101-91 at Amway Center.
``At the end of the year, with big games, a lot of times it’s going to be defense that win you games,’’ said Vucevic, who finished with 27 points and 20 rebounds after opening the game with 13 straight and 17 of the first 19. ``We saw the score of Charlotte-Miami was a low-scoring game, so sometimes it’s just going to be that way and you’ve got to find a way. We did that tonight. We played great defensively throughout the whole game. We found a way to put up enough points to win, so great win for us.’’
Orlando (33-38) needed its second straight victory to stay within one game of No. 8 Miami, which defeated Charlotte 93-75 earlier in the day in South Florida.
Aaron Gordon scored 22 points by hitting nine of 16 shots and three of six 3-point shots. Points, otherwise, were difficult to come by on a night when the Magic shot just 38.8 percent from the floor and made only nine of 37 3-point shots.
Orlando’s defense held Atlanta (24-47) to 41.8 percent shooting and eight of 35 accuracy from the 3-point line. The Hawks missed their first 11 3-point shots of the game and their first seven tries of the second half. Orlando was aided by John Collins – Atlanta’s leading scorer all season at 19.9 points per game – being saddled with early foul trouble before fouling out with just 10 points in 20 minutes. The Hawks had scored at least 104 points in all 12 of their games since the break for the NBA All-Star Game prior to Sunday night.
``We, obviously, didn’t shoot the ball well, but I thought we had good intensity, and even though it was two days in a row (of playing) for (the Hawks), if you look at the offensive numbers they have been putting up, I think our defense was very good,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``At this time of year, that’s obviously critical.’’
Iwundu drilled two 3-pointers in the first half when the Magic were going through an offensive lull and his third basket of the night was a thunderous slam of a missed 3-pointer after Atlanta had closed to within 78-72 midway through the fourth period. His 14 points topped his previous high of 12.
``From one-to-15 (players) today, I think everybody came with a focus to take care of business because we all know what’s on the line,’’ said Iwundu, who made six of eight free throws and helped the Magic outscore the Hawks 33-10 from the free throw line. ``In this part of the season, we’re fighting for the playoffs, man, so it’s either win or pretty much fall further behind. So, we all know what’s at stake.’’
Carter-Williams, who was signed to a 10-day contract on Friday, made his debut in Magic pinstripes and served as the team’s primary backup at point guard behind starter D.J. Augustin (11 points, nine assists and two steals). He played stellar defense throughout on Young and Atlanta reserve guard Jaylen Adams. Offensively, Carter-Williams missed all three of his shots, but he converted five of his eight free throws. He finished with five points, four rebounds, one assist and a turnover in 16 minutes. Carter-Williams said it’s key to him to make the most of this opportunity with the Magic and show that he still belongs in the NBA.
``This is very important. I don’t know, you know, how many more chances I’m going to get,’’ Carter-Williams said. ``I don’t take for (granted) anything. I’m going to play hard every possession, try to make the right play all the time and just have fun. I love the game and I love playing at the highest level. I believe I’ve still got a long career to go, but I’ve just got to work hard every day, do my due diligence, study, take care of my body, keep getting shots up be confident in myself and listen.’’
Atlanta rookie Trae Young, who was jostled around by Augustin several times during the game, scored 20 points, grabbed six rebounds and handed out five assists, but he missed all five of his 3-point shots. Daytona Beach native Vince Carter, the NBA’s oldest player at 42 years old, had eight points and two 3-pointers in nearly 27 minutes of action.
Orlando improved to 3-0 this season against the Hawks. The two Southeast Division rivals play once more in the regular season – also in Orlando – on April 5.
Sunday’s game was the second of Orlando’s five-game home stand at the Amway Center. The Magic beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday and then had two days to prepare for the Hawks. The Magic still have the New Orleans Pelicans (Wednesday), Memphis Grizzlies (Friday) and Philadelphia 76ers (March 25) remaining on the home stand.
On Saturday night, Gordon and Isaac were named co-winners of the Rich and Helen DeVos Community Enrichment award for their many acts of kindness in giving back to those in need in the Central Florida community. Clifford lauded the pair for their work and praised the Magic and the DeVos family ownership group for their commitment to the community.
``Happy for (Gordon and Isaac) and proud of them,’’ Clifford said. ``I’ve said this before – this is my second time here (in Orlando) and I’ve worked for five different franchises and this is the best ownership group I’ve ever worked for. The (DeVos) family sets the tone. The players know and we all know if you’re going to work here that being involved in the community is a priority here. And there’s great spirit within this organization, and it’s the best of any place I’ve ever worked. It starts with the DeVos family, and the players know it’s important that they do their part.’’
Up 10 at the half, the Magic saw their advantage shrink to 75-68 by the end of the third period because of some choppy offense and poor shooting. Orlando made just six of 21 shots, missed nine of 10 3-point tries and turned the ball five times in the period.
Orlando was able to cling to the lead, in part, because the Hawks missed their first seven 3-point shots of the second half. They also opened the game with 11 straight misses from beyond the arc.
Orlando led 56-46 at the half thanks to a stellar start from Vucevic, more steady play from Augustin and big lifts off the bench from Terrence Ross and Wes Iwundu.
Vucevic remarkably scored Orlando’s first 13 points and he had 17 of the first 19 by the 2:53 point of the first quarter. It was the most points Vucevic had ever scored in a quarter, topping the 14 he had the first quarter of a game in Minnesota back in January. He didn’t score in the second quarter, but he notched his 52nd double-double of the season by halftime with 17 points and 13 boards.
``I didn’t really do much for those points,’’ said Vucevic, who made eight of his first 11 shots and finished 10 of 20 for the game. ``A lot of it was pick-and-rolls and they were hitting me on those cuts. A couple of times the guards were driving, the (opposing) big would help on them and I’d be wide open. So, it wasn’t really like I was playing one-on-one and scoring. I was just playing off my teammates.’’
Late in the night, when Vucevic sealed the victory with four of the seven free throws he drilled in the game, some of the 18,045 fans in attendance began chants of ``M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!’’ Those chants meant a lot to Vucevic, who has suffered through six losing seasons in Orlando and is finally playing for a playoff spot for the first time in his Magic career.
``I have TV from Montenegro here, so I paid some of the fans to do that so I could look cool back home,’’ Vucevic joked, referring to his home country. ``It was awesome. To hear the fans say that, obviously it means a lot to me. It means they respect what I do, and they support me. So, it was great to hear and I’m glad I was able to help the team win tonight.’’
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