Magic Beat Heat in Opening Night Thriller

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

ORLANDO – For months, and more specifically in the three weeks since they opened training camp, the Orlando Magic have stressed that they are a dramatically different team than the one that failed to meet expectations in recent years.

Different now with no-nonsense head coach Steve Clifford calling the shots. Different with Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier grasping more control of the team as leaders and tri-captain Aaron Gordon maturing as a relentless, do-everything weapon. And different because of the influx of youth, athleticism and long-armed defense provided by towering 20-something big men Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba.

If that wasn’t evident all throughout the early stages of Orlando’s 104-101 defeat of the rival Miami Heat on Wednesday, it certainly was during an early fourth-quarter sequence that could only be defined by its toughness and fortitude. Seconds after Bamba swatted a Josh Richardson layup out of bounds early in the fourth quarter, guard Terrence Ross twice tipped away shots by 7-foot Miami center Hassan Whiteside. Then, Bamba capped off the stirring sequence with a follow-up dunk that caused the sellout crowd of 19,191 at the Amway Center to throb with jubilant noise.

``With the good teams, when you watch them play 82 games, they have a spirit and a togetherness and I think that’s in that (Magic) locker room,’’ said Clifford, who captured his first victory as the Magic’s head coach. ``being down 14 early we didn’t lose our poise. And, like I said, those guys off the bench (Bamba and Ross) did a good job of using the defense to get the offense going to get us back in the game.’’

Bamba, the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft and a 7-footer with the longest wingspan in NBA history at 7 feet, 10 inches, had the kind of NBA debut that Magic fans won’t soon forget. His 3-pointer late in the third period pushed the Magic into the lead and then dominated the game in a variety of ways early in the fourth to help Orlando build a lead as large as 11 points. On the night, Bamba gave the Magic 13 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots in 25 minutes.

``The block – whenever there’s an emphatic block like that and I didn’t mean to block it out of bounds – but it really got us going,’’ Bamba said of his swat of the Richardson layup. ``This is exactly what I thought this moment would be. It was a fun game to play in.’’

Orlando (1-0) also rode the indominable energy of forward Aaron Gordon in a game that it trailed Miami (0-1) by as many as 14 points in the first half. Gordon, whom the Magic signed to a long-term contract in July, pumped in 26 points, equaled a career high with 16 rebounds and chipped in two assists that were things of beauty.

Afterward, Gordon stressed that there’s a toughness and a belief already growing inside the Magic’s locker room and victories like the one gained on Wednesday is a byproduct of that.

``We’re resilient, we have a lot more depth than we had last year and everybody is coming ready to play,’’ Gordon gushed. ``Everybody is locked in and bought in and that’s what helped us win this game.’’

The Magic led 97-85 with 5:48 to play before the Heat made a spirited charge back into the game. Miami got within 101-97, but Dwyane Wade missed a floater with 1:20 to play. Goran Dragic, who had 26 points, air-balled a long 3-pointer with 35 seconds to play.

Miami would make one more charge in the final minute, getting within 101-99. Then, a Jonathon Simmons free throw with 12.3 seconds remaining gave Orlando a three-point edge. Miami’s Kelly Olynyk also hit two free throws with 6.2 left and the Magic got the ball inbounds to the usually reliable Fournier, who whiffed on two free throws with 4.9 seconds to play.

However, the Magic got a huge break when the Heat’s Richardson inadvertently stepped out of bounds on a baseline drive. Fournier pushed the lead back to three with two free throws and a Miami heave at the horn was well off target.

Vucevic added 12 points and eight rebounds, while Fournier had 13 points and five assists on another poor shooting night. D.J. Augustin (11 points), Simmons (12 points) and Ross (four points, four rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots) also played well. The effectiveness of Orlando’s reserves was reflected in their plus/minus lines: Ross (plus-16 in 25 minutes), Bamba (plus-13 in 25 minutes), Simmons (plus-12 in 33 minutes) and Jerian Grant (plus-11 in 25 minutes).

Wednesday’s game was the Magic’s first with Clifford at the helm and with Bamba in the middle. Clifford, who coached previously with the Charlotte Hornets, is back in Orlando after serving as a Magic assistant coach from 2007-12. The team hasn’t been to the playoffs since the departure of Clifford and several standout players, and the coach is hopeful that Orlando can reverse that trend this season.

Miami, which was without forwards Justise Winslow and James Johnson and guards Dion Waiters and Wayne Ellington, lost in Orlando for a second straight year because of a poor second half. Richardson scored 21 points and made two 3-pointers, while Whiteside added 12 points and 18 rebounds. Wade, who plans to retire at the end of the season, scored just nine points on three-of-13 shooting.

Orlando won despite shooting just 41.5 percent and making only seven of 25 threes and 19 of 31 free throws. The Heat shot only 39.2 percent against Orlando’s much-improved defense.

It was the third consecutive year that the Magic and Heat opened the regular season at the Amway Center. Miami won two years ago by relentlessly battering Orlando with paint points. The Magic beat the Heat and won on Opening Night for the first time since 2012 last season when they got a strong closing kick from shooting guard Evan Fournier.

The Magic will be back on the practice floor on Thursday to prepare for Friday’s home game against the Charlotte Hornets. It will be the first time that Clifford has faced Charlotte since he was fired by that franchise on April 13. As the Hornets’ coach the previous five seasons, Clifford’s teams were a combined 196-214 and reached the playoffs two times (2014 and ‘16). The Hornets and all-star guard Kemba Walker have given the Magic fits for years. Orlando has lost 12 consecutive games and 13 of the last 14 games against Charlotte. The last Magic win came on Dec. 16, 2015 – a 113-98 victory at the Amway Center.

Up three at the half, Orlando wobbled badly early in the third quarter because of its offense, leading it to briefly lose the lead to the Heat. However, Bamba confidently drilled the first 3-pointer of his NBA career late in the period and the Magic took a 79-78 lead into the fourth quarter. Bamba took a drive-and-kick feed from point guard Jerian Grant and stroked a straight-on 3-pointer that broke a 76-all tie late in the third.

Gordon raved about the poise of the Magic’s 7-foot rookie to take, and make, one of the biggest shots of the night that gave Orlando plenty of momentum in the fourth quarter.

``He’s a super athlete, he’s so talented and it’s good to know that you have that much talent with you,’’ Gordon said. ``He makes plays where you’re like, `Whoa! I don’t even know if I can make that play.’ That’s the type (of rookie) that lets you know that we’ve got something special in him.’’

Since he was hired by the Magic in late May, Clifford said he’s sensed a palatable ``hunger’’ among players and fans to get the franchise back to their winning ways. Clifford was an assistant coach in Orlando from 2007-12 – the last time the Magic were in the playoffs. He feels if everything breaks just right the Magic could be in the playoff this year – despite plenty of dire projections from various computer models suggesting Orlando will only win 30 games.

``I’ll say this: We’re good enough to be a playoff team. We have enough talent,’’ Clifford said with conviction. ``I know we haven’t been picked to do well, but I’ve been around long enough to know (what it takes). Now, we have to play well. We’re not going to show up and beat people. But we have enough talent where if we have a mature approach, commit to making progress and get better the way we’re capable, we can (make the playoffs). We have some young players who can emerge during the season and we have some older guys who are capable of having their best years. So, we have enough talent to make the playoffs, but I wouldn’t say any number of wins.’’

Things looked rocky early on for the Magic as they missed 13 of their first 18 shots and fell behind by as much as 14 points. But the Magic would not be deterred and came storming back behind Gordon, Fournier and Bamba to take a 54-51 edge into the locker room at halftime.

Afterward, in a joyous Magic locker room, Clifford praised his team for the resiliency it showed when down early, the fight it revealed when it fell behind in the third and the toughness in the tense moments of the victory.

``The most important thing is what we talked about – spirit and fight,’’ Clifford said in a postgame speech shown on the Magic’s Twitter handle. ``We were down 14 in the first half and there’s nothing more important (to show) then than fight. We showed it tonight and we can build upon that.’’

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