Postgame Report: Magic 105, Celtics 103

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Strong starters of late, but haunted by poor finishes, the Orlando Magic flipped the script on their recent pattern of heartbreak and resiliently rallied in Saturday’s fourth quarter for a much-needed victory.

Victims of three gut-wrenching losses of late when it got outplayed in the second half after building big early leads, Orlando shook off some early shooting struggles, rallied late and hung tough against the Boston Celtics for what could turn out to be a season-saving swing.

Playing before a boisterous Amway Center sellout crowd of 18,846, Orlando saved its best for last and rode the hot shooting of Terrence Ross and Aaron Gordon in the fourth quarter of a pulsating 105-103 defeat of the Celtics.

``That’s just how it goes and (NBA basketball) is a game of runs and it can always go up and down, but it’s always about how you respond,’’ said Ross, who scored nine of his 25 points in the fourth quarter. ``After a long road trip and some tough games, we came out with a good response tonight.’’

The Magic (18-24) went into the fourth quarter down five points, but they outscored the Celtics (25-17) 33-26 over the final 12 minutes and beat Boston for a second time this season. Orlando made 12 of 23 shots in the fourth period (52.1 percent) after shooting just 39.3 percent through three periods.

Orlando came into the game riding a dispiriting four-game losing streak with all of the defeats coming at the end of a grueling six-game, 11-night road trip in which it played in all four continental U.S. time zones on a road trip for the first time in franchise history. Making the losses even more painful was the fact that Orlando squandered big leads to Minnesota (19 points), Los Angeles Clippers (15 points) and Utah (21- and 19-point advantages) while falling.

This time, however, the Magic were the ones doing the rallying back. They opened the fourth quarter with a game-turning 19-7 burst to wipe out the five-point deficit and they never lost the lead despite several Boston charges.

``I think we had a better purpose of play tonight and knew what we were doing and where we wanted our buckets to come from, whether it was from Evan (Fournier), (Nikola Vucevic), T-Ross or getting to the line,’’ said Gordon, whose thunderous dunk off a Terry Rozier turnover tied the game at 82-all early in the fourth quarter. ``We just kept chipping away. Man, that (victory) was huge for us.’’

Up 104-103 with 10.2 seconds to play, Orlando got the ball inbounds to Fournier, who seemed on his way to dribbling out much of the remaining time. He briefly lost possession after being trapped by two Boston defenders, but he recovered the ball and got it to Vucevic, who was immediately fouled. However, Orlando’s leading scorer and rebounder on the season made just one of two free throws, giving the Celtics one final chance with 2.9 seconds remaining.

Rather than going to superstar point guard Kyrie Irving – who had 14 of his 24 points in overtime –Boston inbounded the ball to forward Jayson Tatum, who missed a 21-foot fadeaway along the baseline – a shot made more difficult by the defense of Wes Iwundu.

``We had a couple of options on (the last play) and one of them is Tatum curling off that screen, being available for that shot,’’ Boston coach Brad Stevens said. ``Obviously, Kyrie is another (option) coming from the top, which we’ve seen before. … I thought Tatum got a really good look, and Tatum’s a really good player. We’ve believed strongly in him for a long time. It just didn’t go down.’’

Cracked Irving: ``Next play. … J.T. got a good look. Move on.’’

Tatum finished with 16 points, while Marcus Morris scored 17 and hit three 3-pointers. Boston shot just 42.2 percent and made only eight of 32 3-pointers against Orlando’s rapidly improving defense. Boston connected on just seven of 24 shots (29.2 percent) in the deciding fourth quarter.

``I mean, (outscoring Boston) 33-26 in the fourth and 64 points in the second half against an elite defensive team, we made some big plays,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said.

Vucevic finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds on a difficult night against Boston’s Al Horford, while Fournier added 18 points and five assists. Also, backup center Khem Birch (four points, 10 rebounds, four blocked shots and a plus-23 in 17 minutes) and point guard Isaiah Briscoe (four assists, one rebound, a charge taken and a plus-20 in 21 minutes) were crucial in the victory.

Birch, who was only playing because of the minor foot injury to rookie center Mo Bamba, was proud to contribute to a victory. He said he is able to better keep himself sharp now despite rarely playing because of his improved maturity.

``Coach Clifford said that one-through-15 has to be prepared regardless of the situation, so that statement makes you feel a part of the team,’’ Birch said. ``I told (Clifford) that I understand reality. Mo’s going to play and Vooch is going to play and those guys are so talented. I feel like in life, you’ve got to understand the reality of the situation. I’m always going to stay ready.’’

Orlando had lost four games in a row twice previously this season, and it responded well each time. When they were 2-6 early in the season, the Magic went to San Antonio and played especially well in a victory. Then, following another four-game swoon in late December, the Magic throttled Toronto and beat Detroit on a buzzer-beating shot by Fournier. Now, in the throes of another ugly four-game skid, Orlando responded with another quality win against an elite team.

``Man, we’ve got to start winning without losing four in a row,’’ Gordon said. ``We’re not going to be where we want to be doing that. We’ve got to continue to string wins together without having to go and find a way to re-identify ourselves.’’

Saturday’s game was the first of an extremely challenging home/home back-to-back set of games for the Magic, who will be back in action on Sunday when they host superstar guard James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Houston smashed Cleveland 141-113 on Friday thanks to a Harden’s 43 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. Not only was it his 15th straight 30-point game, but it was the 12th 40-point triple-double of his career. Last season, Harden set the NBA record for most points (60) in a triple-double in a game against the Magic.

``That’s the NBA, right? They send you on the road and you lose four in a row and they say, `Hey, listen, swing home and sleep for a day and say hi to the Celtics and the Rockets,’’’ Clifford said. ``That’s just the way that it works.’’

Saturday’s game had the feel of the October meeting between the Magic and Celtics that was played in Boston. Orlando won that first meeting, 93-90, by locking down defensively and riding a big effort by forward Jonathan Isaac (18 points and 12 rebounds). This time, the production came from primarily from Gordon and Ross in the second half. Ross made eight of 20 shots and five of 14 3-pointers, while Gordon hit half of his 14 shots and drilled all 13 of his free throws.

``Regardless of the score, we’ve got to play the way that we need to play, and we have to figure out a way that is sustainable and works for us,’’ Gordon said. ``We just kept chipping away defensively and we knew that if we stayed locked in and kept getting easy buckets, the game would turn in our favor.’’

Down 10 at the half, Orlando hung tough in the third period despite more shooting woes and got within 77-72 by the start of the fourth thanks to a big, momentum-building shot by Ross. The veteran guard drilled a 3-pointer with a tenth of a second remaining in the period to draw the Magic within five.

Orlando trailed 51-41 at the half largely because of its poor shooting and its turnover issues. Down nine in the early going, the Magic bounced back and led by as much as eight before gift-wrapping a Boston run with their own miscues.

In strange twist of fate, an Orlando team that spent most of last week trying to protect big leads – and failing miserably – was the one put in a position of rallying on Saturday. This time, the Magic found a way to gut out a much-needed victory.

``We’re resilient,’’ Ross said. ``We don’t give up. We’re going to keep playing no matter what and we kind of did that tonight. We’ve just got to keep on building on it.’’

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.

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