ORLANDO – Knowing they need to run off a string of victories to get themselves back in serious contention for a playoff spot, the Orlando Magic followed up one of their most spirited wins from two nights earlier with a much-needed defeat of the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday.
Coming into the night having already dropped two games this season against the Nets, Orlando rode the dependable shooting touch of all-star center Nikola Vucevic in the fourth quarter and coasted to a 102-89 defeat of the Nets.
In a game that was often ragged and featured plenty of sloppy shooting, Orlando (22-31) got 12 points from Vucevic in the fourth quarter to finally break away from Brooklyn (28-26). Vucevic, who was named an NBA All-Star for the first time in his NBA career on Thursday, scored 24 points and grabbed 12 rebounds for his team-best 36th double-double of the season.
``I think it’s important that we get on a run. I think we have it in us and we’re aware of (needing a string of victories),’’ said Vucevic, who made six of his eight shots in the fourth quarter to ice the victory. ``If we can pull out performances like we did the last two games, we’re going to have a shot.’’
Down four at the half, the Magic took control of the game in the third period and sealed it in the fourth with some gritty defense. Brooklyn guard D’Angelo Russell, who was named to an all-star on Friday as a replacement for the injured Victor Oladipo, had 23 points and six assists, but only eight of those points came after halftime.
``I thought the focus was better and it felt like we played with a purpose for 48 minutes,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who scored 16 points and drilled a 3-pointer with 3:31 to play to put Orlando comfortably ahead 92-83. ``In previous games, we’ve had good stretches and then for five or six minutes we’re just not doing the things that we should do – not playing the right way and forgetting assignments – but I thought tonight the focus was really good. We played with a good focus, the intensity was there, and it showed.’’
Orlando rallied past Indiana in the fourth quarter on Thursday to break an eight-game losing streak to the Pacers. On Saturday, the Magic dug in in the second half to finally notch their first victory over the Nets in three meetings this season. Adding to the difficulty of Saturday, the game was Orlando’s 10thin the past 17 nights and they found a way to muster enough focus and energy to get the win.
``You could see it with both teams – they have been playing a lot too – but our intensity was good, and the defense was good,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said.
Aaron Gordon scored 15 points, but he made just six of 17 shots. A game after grabbing a career-best 13 rebounds, Jonathan Isaac chipped in 10 points, 12 boards, three steals and three blocked shots. Isaac had one of his best sequences of the season early on when he converted a difficult put-back basket in traffic, drilled a 3-pointer on the next possession and swatted a shot to set up another Magic score.
``This was one of our top two or three deflection games and I bet he had the most,’’ Clifford raved. ``Again, I think he’s gaining confidence and he’s sustaining really good play every night.’’
D.J. Augustin added 12 points and eight assists, while Wes Iwundu gave the Magic a huge spark in the third quarter and finished with 10 points and six rebounds. He swooped in from the wing with 10:17 to play and followed up a missed shot with a layup as he was fouled that gave Orlando an 83-75 edge. He also burned the Nets three straight times in the third quarter after they had switched to a zone defense.
``Every game we need, especially right now with the position that we’re in,’’ Iwundu said of the Magic trying to make a playoff push. ``Going in to All-Star break this is a tough stretch for us, but we’ve got to push through, man and try to put some wins together. We really need to put ourselves in a good spot so that we can be fighting for a playoff spot.’’
Orlando won despite Terrence Ross (seven points) shooting just three of 14 from the floor and one of seven from 3-point range. Ross was coming off a 30-point performance in Thursday’s victory – the second-best scoring night of his NBA career. Coming into Saturday, Ross had played much better in Orlando’s 21 wins (15.4 points per game on 48.8 percent shooting and 40.3 percent accuracy from 3-point range) than in its 31 losses (13.5 points on 40.2 percent shooting and 36.9 percent accuracy from 3-point range).
Shabazz Napier had 15 points off the bench for the Nets, which shot just 36.3 percent against Orlando’s defense. The Magic rallied to shoot 43.6 percent and made 10 of 27 3-point shots.
Orlando and Brooklyn came into Saturday separated by 6 ½ games in the standings. Between the sixth-seeded Nets and the No. 11 Magic are Charlotte, Miami, Detroit and Washington. Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said prior to the tipoff that he can see that race tightening up over the next few weeks and the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference not being decided until mid-April.
``It will go down to the end,’’ said Atkinson, a potential Coach of the Year candidate with the work he’s done in turning around the Nets. ``I know there are percentages (of making the playoffs) and all of that, but Orlando is too good, and they’ll make a push. Charlotte is good, we’re improving, and Miami is Miami. I just look at this thing as – especially with our schedule because we have a tough schedule coming up – so we expect it to be a dogfight.’’
Saturday’s game was the third and final meeting of the season between the Magic and Nets. Brooklyn rallied late and used 40 points from Russell for a 117-115 win in Orlando on Jan. 18. Then, five days later the Nets got another big night from Russell (25 points and 10 assists) and won 114-110 in Brooklyn.
Magic rookie center Mo Bamba was a late scratch because of a sore lower left leg. Bamba, the No. 6 pick from last June’s NBA Draft, missed four games from Jan. 9-16 with a sore left foot. In that instance, an MRI showed no structural damage in Bamba’s foot. His return will be based on how his sore extremity responds to treatment. Clifford said following Saturday’s game that it could potentially be several days at the earliest before Bamba is available to play again.
Khem Birch, who played well in place of Bamba when he was out earlier, filled the back-up center minutes on Saturday. In 15 minutes on Saturday, Birch had four points, six rebounds and a blocked shot.
After playing four times in seven nights, the Magic will be off on Sunday. They will practice on Monday before departing for Oklahoma City where they will face the scorching-hot Thunder on Tuesday. OKC topped the Magic on Tuesday behind 37 points from Paul George.
Unlike in the first half when they got little production at all from their bench, the reserves carried the Magic late in the third period, allowing them to take a 78-70 edge into the fourth quarter. Iwundu, who is back in the rotation because of an oblique injury to Jonathon Simmons, had Orlando’s final seven points of the third on a corner three, a floater in the lane and a layup in heavy traffic.
The Magic bench also played a role in holding the Nets to just 22 points in the third quarter. Their gritty defense held Brooklyn to eight of 17 shooting in the period.
``They were switching up the defense all night and that sequence right there against the zone when we went on a run was pretty big,’’ Iwundu said. ``That helped us push the lead out and get a comfortable lead going into the fourth.’’
Orlando led by 13 points in the early going, but it didn’t stand up because of more struggles when it broke the lineup and turned to the reserves. The Magic’s advantage was down to five by the end of the first quarter and they trailed 48-44 at intermission.
Brooklyn made two of its first 14 3-point shots before reserve guard Shabazz Napier got hot over the final 2:25 of the first half. He closed the first half with three 3-pointers – the final one being a buzzer-beater over the outstretched arms of two defenders. The Nets got 26 of their points in the first half from their two points guards – 15 from Russell and 11 from Napier.
However, the Magic snapped out of their malaise in the second half and played with the intensity and grittiness need to gut out a victory. Orlando held a 58-41 edge in the second half by smothering the Nets to the tune of 36.6 percent shooting and 10 turnovers. Also, the Magic converted those miscues into 18 points.
Now, the Magic just have to try and repeat that effort again and again to stack up a string of wins that might get them back in the playoff race.
``There’s always opportunity, but you have to create it yourself,’’ Fournier said. ``You have to play good to win games, and it’s that simple. We just have to play this way for the remainder of the season, no matter who is in front of us.’’
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