MIAMI – On the surface, the Orlando Magic’s 12-12 record following another impressive road victory on Tuesday night might seem unremarkable. But when factoring in that they are the owners of the NBA’s fifth-most-difficult schedule and obviously road weary from being away from home much of the past two weeks, they couldn’t be happier about where they stand this far into the season.
Down at intermission after numerous offensive struggles in the early going, the Magic rode stellar second-half performances from Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross in a thorough 105-90 defeat of the rival Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena.
Already owners of big road wins in Boston, San Antonio and Los Angeles, the Magic notched a difficult victory in Miami on Tuesday. Their 6-6 mark on the road is not only the same as their 6-6 record at the Amway Center, but the six victories away from home rank third among all Eastern Conference teams.
``Even when things haven’t been going our way sometimes in games, we’ve still been able to find a way and stick together,’’ said center Nikola Vucevic, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds and incredibly led the Magic to a plus-31 on the scoreboard in his 33 minutes on the floor. ``I think there’s more belief now in the group that we can do it every night. Guys really believe in the system and how we’ve been playing, and it shows. The first half wasn’t good, and we came back great in the third quarter.’’
Orlando held Miami (9-14) to just 40 points on 34.8 percent shooting in the second half. Another big factor in the night: The Magic defended the Heat without fouling for the most part. The Heat set a franchise record low with just two made free throws and got to the line only five times all game.
Gordon shook off the ill effects of a one-of-eight shooting start and scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half. Ross, Orlando’s best reserve all season, had 19 points and three straight free throws with 3:06 remaining that all but sealed the victory for Orlando.
``We just picked it up on the defensive end and that’s where we really played better,’’ Gordon said of the impetus of his strong third-quarter turnaround. ``That’s what really got us turned around. When we go out there and work to get stops that allows us to play in the open court and be really aggressive.’’
Said Ross on Gordon’s breakout performance in the third-quarter: ``He, for sure, provided that spark. He got going really early in that third and that gave everybody a boost.’’
Vucevic, an early all-star candidate with his stellar all-around play, traded blows with Miami center Hassan Whiteside early in the game and then dominated backup center Bam Adebayo down the stretch. Not only did Vucevic finish with another triple-double, he held Whiteside (12 points and nine rebounds) to just two points after a 10-point first quarter. The mercurial Whiteside seemed to spar with Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra along the bench and he didn’t play in the fourth quarter.
While the Heat were splintering all throughout the one-sided second half, the Magic pulled even closer together and executed nearly flawlessly in the tense moments of the final 24 minutes. Ross, who just missed scoring at least 20 points in a second straight game for the sixth time in his NBA career, knows the Magic have something special going because of the togetherness and talent on the team.
``We’re a close bunch, we stick together on the road and we stick together through adversity,’’ said Ross, who drilled three drawn-up shots out of timeouts on Tuesday night. ``That’s the biggest part and the rest of it is just taking care of itself right now.’’
Evan Fournier chipped in 13 points and three 3-pointers and D.J. Augustin added 11 points and two more threes for a Magic team that shot just 44.2 percent from the floor but connected on 50 percent from the 3-point stripe (14 of 28). Conversely, Miami shot just 41.8 percent from the floor and mustered just the two points from the free throw line.
Prior to the game, Magic first-year coach Steve Clifford talked about the major strides his team has made since starting the season 2-6 and sitting near the bottom of the NBA in nearly every offensive category on Nov. 2. Clifford said getting to 12-12 – especially considering the difficulty of the Magic’s schedule – says a lot about the strides made by the group.
``We’ve been making progress and getting better,’’ said Magic coach Steve Clifford, whose team had an encouraging 9-7 record in November. ``We are ranked ninth in (offensive efficiency) and 11thin (defensive efficiency) in the league (over the last month). We are playing a lot better on both sides of the ball. Obviously, the biggest thing is to win, but the whole (season) is about making progress and getting better. Our guys have really been doing that.’’
Miami saw its modest two-game winning streak come to an end. The Heat are just 5-9 at home thus far – a record that is likely the product of standout point guard Goran Dragic being out injured. Justise Winslow scored 14 points, while Kelly Olynyk added 13 points and Heat legend Dwyane Wade chipped in 11.
Tuesday’s game was the Magic’s sixth in a row on the road, and their third victory over that grueling span. They went 2-3 on a nine-night trip through the Western Conference before returning to Orlando for parts of three days prior to departing again for Miami.
``It says that (the toughness) is there and it’s growing for us,’’ said Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, who had 12 points, six rebounds and two steals and was a plus-17 in his 31 minutes on the floor. ``Our ability to go on the road and take care of business is something that’s going to continue to grow for us. Eventually, we’re going to be able to close out those tough games that we lost like at Golden State and the game after that (in Portland). We’re definitely on an upward trend.’’
The Magic will be back at the Amway Center on Wednesday for a second leg of a difficult back-to-back against the surging Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets, winners in Toronto on Monday and owners of a six-game winning streak, thrashed the Magic 112-87 in Denver the day after Thanksgiving.
``We’re 6-6 (on the road) and now we’ve got to play better at home,’’ Clifford said after the rousing road win. ``We’ve been a lot better on the road than we have been at home. It’s the NBA – you have a good win and you feel good and then (the schedule-makers) say, `Come on back home, Denver is waiting.’ We’re going to have to be ready. Hopefully (on Wednesday) if we can play that same kind of defense (as Tuesday in Miami), we’ll give ourselves a chance.’’
The Magic and Heat were playing for the second time on the season. The two teams opened the season at the Amway Center for a third consecutive year and for a second straight year, the Magic won. They play twice more on the season – once in Orlando (Dec. 23) and once more in Miami (March 26).
Down four at intermission and by as much as seven early in the third period, the Magic flipped the script on the game when Gordon got to rolling offensively. Just one of eight and mostly disengaged early on, Gordon made six of his seven shot in the third quarter – two of them 3-pointers – and pumped in 16 points in the period.
Orlando made 12 of 24 shots and four of nine 3-pointers in the third to take a commanding 76-62 lead into the fourth period. As good as the Magic were offensively in the third period, they were even better defensively. They held the Heat to five-of-21 shooting in the 12 minutes just after halftime, including holding Miami scoreless for nearly four minutes late in the third.
``He just started making plays,’’ Clifford said of Gordon, insisting that he didn’t draw up more plays for the talented power forward in the second half. ``It started when he was hitting his jumper and he had some good plays in transition. He was important getting our offense going, but his defense was really good also.’’
The Magic gave up 36 points in the paint in the first half but surrendered just 16 in the lane after intermission.
``We have lineups out there where we’re so versatile and (Isaac) really makes that work,’’ Clifford said of the second-year forward. ``He can guard (small forwards), (power forwards), he can guard in the post, it’s his help defense and his individual defense. He just makes your defense going.’’
Orlando made a paltry 40 percent of its shots in the first half, but it stayed within striking distance of the Heat by drilling seven of its first 10 3-point tries. The Heat made half their shots in the first 24 minutes, but they led just 50-46 at intermission because of the Magic’s shooting from afar.
Now, following one of their best second-half performances of the season, the Magic will try to keep the momentum going on Wednesday against rising star Nikola Jokic and the surging Nuggets.
``It’s going to be a big game because they are one of the best teams in the league right now, playing at a really high level,’’ Vucevic said of Denver. ``They just had a huge win in Toronto and we know how good they are. It’s going to be another great opportunity for us because it’s our first game home in a little while. Hopefully, we can play well and get a big win in front of our fans.’’
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