By John Denton Oct. 30, 2017
NEW ORLEANS – Unlike most of his NBA brethren, Marreese Speights doesn’t need to see the ball go in the hoop or get a few trips up and down the court to heat up offensively.
Nope, all Speights needs is a nod from his head coach to check into the game.
``As soon as I come in the game, I feel like I’m hot,’’ Speights said with a sly smile.
Known for years as one of the NBA’s best offensive players off the bench, Speights entered a close game and put on the kind of shooting display that the Orlando Magic won’t soon forget.
Speights made four of five 3-point shots in the first 4:30 of the fourth quarter to kick-start a strong finish to the night as the Magic rolled to a thrilling 115-99 defeat of superstar forward Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans.
Speights, a St. Petersburg native who always dreamed of playing for the Magic, had 12 of his 18 points in the fourth period. His shooting helped Orlando (5-2) turn an 88-84 edge into a commanding 106-89 lead and pave the way for another impressive road victory. Speights came into Monday night having attempted just nine 3-point shots in three games this season, but he was ready when called upon against Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and the Pelicans (3-4).
``I’m mentally prepared on the bench and it doesn’t matter if I’m going to play or not, I’ll always be locked in on the game, know what’s going on and know how the (opposing) big guys are playing,’’ said Speights, who was a plus-21 on the scoreboard for the Magic in his 21 minutes on the floor. ``I got a chance and I just tried to help my team. When I get into the game, I’m already loaded and ready. But that comes from being locked in and mentally prepared on the bench.’’
Speights’ shooting was one of many things to go right on the night for the plucky and resilient Magic. They made 16 of 34 3-pointers, drilled 50.6 percent of their shots and they limited the Pelicans to 35 second-half points with some much-improved defense.
``That (35 points in the second half) were better than the 40 points we gave up in the second quarter,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said sarcastically. ``We worked hard and we challenged them at halftime. We know that we’re doing some really special things on the offensive end and that all feels good, but it’s not going to result in wins if we don’t buckle down on defense.
``We challenged them at halftime and partially responded (defensively) because they were tired of (struggling), but part of it also was because Mo Speights got hot on the other end,’’ Vogel added. ``Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. When he’s bombing threes and they’re trying to figure out what to do and then they can’t make a shot.’’
A night after a sluggish performance on both ends of the floor in a loss to Charlotte, the Magic rebounded in a very big way. If the Magic’s loss/win sequence seems familiar, it happened in similar fashion just 10 days earlier. A night after playing poorly on the defensive end in a 126-121 loss to Brooklyn on Oct. 20, the Magic drilled 17 3-pointers to whip LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Cleveland. This time, Orlando was once again able to gut through the fatigue from a road-to-road back-to-back and play some of its best basketball of the season again.
``We can be proud of ourselves because we’ve won two games on the second night of a back-to-back on the road and that’s the hardest thing to do in NBA basketball,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who had 20 points, four 3-pointers and four assists. ``We should have the same mindset all the time. In the second half, we had a great defensive mindset and that’s how we should play for 82 games. So, this was a good win.’’
Orlando got that good win because it got back to sharing the basketball, canning 3-pointers at a high rate and riding strong performances from several players on the roster to turn back the brilliance of Davis, who finished with 39 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. Only 13 of those came after halftime as the Magic cranked up the defense and befuddled the big man with Speights’ shooting on the other end of the floor.
Nikola Vucevic (20 points, eight rebounds and three assists) and and Aaron Gordon (17 points, seven rebounds and two steals) were solid as usual, but it was the tremendous lift from reserves such as Jonathon Simmons (20 points, six rebounds and four assists) and Speights that deserved most of the credit for this victory.
Speights, a 10-year veteran, is basically Orlando’s version of a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency weapon off the bench. Speights scored 12 points in the four-plus-minute burst to start the fourth quarter to send the Magic on their way to their fifth win in seven games.
The most exhilarating moment of the night for the Magic came with 7:15 to play when Speights drilled corner 3-pointer to give Orlando a 106-89 lead. One Magic player after another came storming off the bench to congratulate Speights and Fournier was the first to reach him, crashing into the big man for a joyous chest bump.
``All of these guys are cool guys and they were just happy for me to hit those shots,’’ Speights said of the celebratory chest bumps with his teammates. ``We’re just happy that we got a good win. We’ve got good guys here and we did what we had to do.’’
A night after scoring a career-best 27 points in Charlotte, Simmons did plenty on Monday night. Attacking the rim relentlessly, he made seven of 12 shots, he drilled a 3-pointer and connected on all five of his free throws. Vogel said before the game that Simmons has greatly exceeded his expectations already and the guard said he is simply taking advantage of the expanded opportunity that Orlando has afforded him.
``Like I said in the beginning, it’s time for me to release something that nobody has seen before,’’ Simmons said of his inner drive. ``I’ve been able to play, but not play like I’ve wanted to. So, credit to these guys for giving me the confidence and be a big part of this team.’’
Orlando’s play frustrated the mercurial behavior of New Orleans center DeMarcus Cousins, who had 12 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, but he turned the ball over six times and made just five of 14 shot attempts. Cousins won the Western Conference Player of the Week award on Monday after averaging 36.3 points, 16.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks, but he didn’t have a point in the first 14 minutes against the Magic. For the game, the dominant big man heaved 7 3-point shots and made just two.
The Magic got rookie forward Jonathan Isaac after he missed Sunday’s game with an illness. The No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft had trouble staying on the floor early in the night because of foul trouble caused by Davis’ activity. However, he finished strong with four points, seven rebounds and a blocked shot that led to a Simmons’ layup.
Orlando came into Monday after arguably its worst game of the season – a 120-113 loss in which Kemba Walker (34 points) and Dwight Howard (20 points) scored almost at will.
After playing Sunday and Monday, Orlando will get a much-needed day off on Tuesday before concluding their three-game trip in Memphis on Wednesday. Elfrid Payton, who has missed the past five games with a hamstring strain, will work out again on Tuesday with the hopes that he might be able to return on Wednesday night.
Down four at the half, Orlando played well on both ends of the floor in the third quarter to grab the lead and head into the fourth period 88-84. Vucevic came out of the half in attack mode, scoring 14 in the third period to give the Magic another strong threat to go with Fournier and Gordon.
Orlando opened the third quarter with a 12-2 run, then surrendered a 10-2 New Orleans’ burst and closed the period with a 14-8 surge to regain the lead.
From there, Speights took over in the fourth quarter, doing what he’s done so often throughout his NBA career. Not long after checking into the game, Speights drilled a 3-pointer. Then another, another and another to key the Magic victory.
``Sometimes you can’t go two minutes of just warming up and just play. My job is to go in there and make open shots,’’ Speights said. ``Just like a defensive player who can’t go in there and warm up, I have to be ready and I stay mentally prepared on the bench.’’
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