LOS ANGELES – Good all season at delivering some of their best performances following poor ones, the Orlando Magic were at their bounce-back best again on Sunday.
When the Magic showed off their resiliency and grit all throughout Sunday’s game against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers – especially in the final minute with the result perilously hanging in the balance – it allowed them to accomplish an impressive feat for just the second time in the 30-year history of the franchise.
Two nights after losing in Denver in embarrassing fashion, Orlando responded to adversity by riding another stellar all-around performance by center Nikola Vucevic and coming through in the tense moments of the final minute of a thrilling 108-104 defeat of the Lakers.
Up 15 points following a stellar first three quarters of play, Orlando struggled much of the final period and found itself tied with the Lakers at 104 with 40 seconds to play. However, the Magic got a clutch layup from guard Terrence Ross, a fortunate 3-point miss by L.A.’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope off a James’ feed and an Aaron Gordon dunk in the final seconds to emerge victorious.
``This shows a sign of growth – especially coming out of our last game when we didn’t play the way that we wanted to,’’ said Ross, who wisely drove through a Lakers defense for the layup that proved to be the game-winning points with 34.2 seconds remaining. ``The way we responded tonight is the way a professional team should. I think we’re building that resiliency and we’re not letting too much affect us. We’re playing appropriately and the right way.’’
The victory, combined with the Magic’s whipping of L.A. at the Amway Center last week, allowed Orlando (10-10) to sweep the two-game season series from the Lakers (11-8) for just the second time in franchise’s history. The other instance of two wins in the same season against the Lakers came during the 2008-09 season when Orlando reached the NBA Finals. Also, the win was just Orlando’s sixth ever in Los Angeles against the Lakers, a number that is tied for their fewest road victories against one team (Portland is the other).
Vucevic, who had 36 points in last week’s defeat of the Lakers, scored 31 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, handed out seven assists and blocked three shots for Orlando. Per BasketballReference.com, Vucevic is just the third player in the NBA this season with at least 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks, joining Giannis Antetokounmpo (Oct. 24) and Anthony Davis (Oct. 17).
``We got the win against (the Lakers) a week ago and coming back today and getting another win vs. them is huge for us,’’ said Vucevic, who boosted his numbers to 20.4 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.6 steals and 1.1 blocks on the season. ``They came out ready and we knew that, but we were able to re-group and we had a great second half. At the end, we were able to sustain it, which is huge for us because we’re trying to build something. Wins like this can really help you build some momentum.’’
Orlando held James, who is in his first season with the Lakers, to 24 points and seven assists. Gordon and fellow forward Jonathan Isaac shared the defensive duties on James and both played much of the fourth quarter with five fouls. James didn’t help himself by making just six of 11 free throws. With Orlando up two in the final 30 seconds, James passed up a shot and dished to Caldwell-Pope for a 3-pointer that was off line.
``I passed up a good shot for a great shot,’’ James said. ``I’ll do that every time. Then, you just live with the result.’’
Ross finished with 16 points and four 3-pointers, while Gordon had 17 points and point guard D.J. Augustin chipped in 12 points and nine assists.
Up 86-71 after three periods, Orlando saw the Lakers to put together a 33-18 burst to get the game tied at 104. From there, Ross made the biggest play of the night by recognizing the defense being played by L.A. and passing up a 3-point shot. He split two defenders and got all the way to the rim for a basket that gave Orlando a 106-104 lead with 34.2 seconds to play.
``They started pressuring (defensively) and when teams pressure like that the only thing you really can do is take it to the hole,’’ said Ross, who made six of 12 shots and four of seven 3-point tries. ``They were so pressed up on everybody that I think they got too spread out and that was why (he was able to get to the rim).’’
Magic coach Steve Clifford, who was on Orlando’s bench the last season Orlando swept the Lakers in two games in the same season, credited Ross for keeping the Magic in the game with his first-half shooting. And on the Ross game-winner, Clifford pointed out that the guard was able to get all the way to the rim because L.A. center JaVale McGee (12 points, seven rebounds and seven blocked shots) had to honor the 3-point shooting range of Vucevic.
``Without Terrence Ross’ offense in the first half, that’s a 15-point loss,’’ Clifford candidly claimed. ``He kept us in the game, when we broke the (starting) lineup in the first half, all by himself.’’
Another player who exemplified the Magic’s resiliency was guard Jonathon Simmons, who bounced back from being out of the rotation in Friday’s loss in Denver with 10 points, four assists and a spectacular blocked shot in the fourth quarter. Clifford turned to Simmons after starting forward Wes Iwundu struggled to slow down Kyle Kouzma (21 points and five assists) and the veteran responded with gritty hustle on both ends of the floor. After Orlando lost in heart-breaking fashion on Tuesday against Toronto and in embarrassing fashion on Friday, Simmons said it was important for Orlando to show fight on Sunday.
``This is big for us going forward in helping us build confidence and it shows us what we’re capable of what it takes to win big games like this,’’ Simmons said. ``(Bouncing back) starts with our coaching staff getting us ready to play, us executing and delivering. We’re finding ways to win games.’’
Simmons said not playing on Friday had little to do with his performance on Sunday, noting: ``I’ve already been through way worse things than not playing a couple of games or (being out of) the rotation. It was just about staying positive and keeping these guys up who were playing.’’
Sunday’s start time of 12:30 p.m. locally in L.A. was devised by the NBA so that the game fell in the prime-time television window of Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It was the sixth of 42 such Saturday/Sunday NBA games this season started at times with European, African and Middle Eastern television viewers in mind. Later in the season, the NBA will also feature games on five consecutive Sundays that start in primetime for viewers in India. In all, NBA programming and games are seen in 215 countries and territories in 50 languages.
Prior to tipoff on Sunday, Clifford admitted that he was a bit concerned about the early start time for his team.
``Regular-season or players, (day games) are a totally different animal for players because they are out of their routines,’’ Clifford said. ``The readiness to start these games is even more paramount than the 7 or 7:30 games.’’
The Magic and Lakers were playing for a second time in eight days. Orlando whipped the Lakers 130-117 at the Amway Center last Saturday night. That game continued a predictable pattern of late between the Magic and Lakers. Whereas the Magic have beaten the Lakers six times in a row in Orlando, the Lakers came into Sunday having beaten the Magic five times in a row in L.A. Prior to Sunday, the Magic had just five wins against the Lakers in Los Angeles – their fewest against any team in the 30-year history of the franchise. Orlando came into Sunday looking for just its second season sweep of the Lakers, having done it just once before in the 2008-09 season.
Then, there’s this: The Lakers are 7-2 this season since acquiring veteran center Tyson Chandler. Both of the losses came to the Magic.
``It’s a really good win for us,’’ said Gordon, who sealed the victory was the dunk in the final seconds. ``(The Lakers) are a good team and they’re going to continue to be good, but we got (the history of a lack of success in L.A.) out of the way. (Vucevic) killed them both times. That was a tough matchup for them and they don’t match up well with us. So, I’m glad we got them out of the way with a couple of wins.’’
Things don’t get any easier on Monday as the Magic get their first look at the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Golden State defeated Sacramento on Saturday to end their first four-game losing streak with Steve Kerr as head coach. Two-time MVP Stephen Curry has already been ruled out for Monday’s game as he continues to rehabilitate from a groin strain.
Trailing by one at the half after James had hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to end the second quarter, the Magic regained the momentum with a stellar third period. They held the Lakers to one of 11 shooting to open the second half and outscored L.A. 35-19 in the third period. Vucevic had 10 points, seven rebounds and three assists in the third period alone, allowing the Magic to take an 86-71 lead into the fourth quarter.
In the end, when things got tight, the Magic were able to steady themselves and win the game with two clutch plays. They’ve done much the same thing all season, steadying themselves following ugly losses with big victories. The Magic can now claim impressive road victories against the Celtics, Spurs and Lakers – all of which have come after defeats in the previous game.
``You always have to look at the big picture, and Coach (Clifford) talked on (Saturday) about yes, we played bad in Denver, but it’s a long season and you’re going to have bad games here and there,’’ Vucevic said. ``We can’t accept that but, but when it happens, we have to be able to move on quickly and re-group. We did that (on Sunday) against a good team that’s been playing well lately. So, it’s a huge win for us.’’
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