NEW ORLEANS – Of their many accomplishments in nearly 30 seasons of basketball, the Orlando Magic had never won three straight road games by 16-or-more points. The dominant teams of the mid-1990s, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, never accomplished the feat, nor did the 2009 squad that ruled the Eastern Conference and ultimately reached the NBA Finals.
Remarkably, though, the present-day Magic – one beleaguered by inconsistency for much of the early season – finished off the feat on Tuesday with more flawless execution, gritty defense and ice-cold shot-making.
Riding their surging momentum of late, the Magic roared out to a 28-point first quarter lead, pushed that advantage to as much as 31 in the second half and cruised past the New Orleans Pelicans 118-88 for a season-best fourth straight victory.
``It feels good to win and when we figure it out like we have, it becomes a surging energy running through the guys,’’ said Magic second-year forward Jonathan Isaac, who scored a career-best 20 points – 16 of them in a runaway first quarter. ``Guys here really want to win and it’s showing.’’
Is it ever showing?
Orlando (26-32) thumped Milwaukee by 20 on Saturday and smashed Atlanta by 16 points on Sunday. Going into the night, the Magic hadn’t won two road games in a row by 16 or more since 2008. Now, they’ve done something that not even Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, Horace Grant, O’Neal and Hardaway accomplished in Magic pinstripes.
``It’s a great road trip for us, we took care of business in a big way and we played really good basketball on both ends of the floor,’’ said all-star center Nikola Vucevic, who throttled the Pelicans (25-33) for 25 points and 17 rebounds. ``We defended well and offensively we played together and moved the ball. Each games, we’ve had a lot of guys scoring in double digits and that’s how we’re the most effective. We have to learn from this that this is the only way it’s going to work for us, and we can’t go away from it.’’
The Magic had an off day on Monday, but that did nothing to slow their surging momentum. Tuesday’s game was never in doubt after the Magic used a devastating 32-5 bust in the first quarter to build the 28-point lead. It was just the sixth time in franchise history that the Magic have won a road game by 30 points – the first since Jan. 13, 2009.
Tuesday’s victory was the sixth in seven games and the fourth win in a row is the longest streak of the season, topping the three straight the Magic racked up from Nov. 14-18.
``I’m really happy with the way guys played and our readiness to start both halves was, obviously, great,’’ said Magic coach Steve Clifford, whose team pulled to within 1 ½ games of No. 8 Detroit and a half-game of No. 9 Miami. ``We’re getting good starts and we’re able to sustain our play. Guys are coming in off the bench and they’re doing a good job. We just played a good purposeful, professional game.’’
Vucevic, who will play in his first NBA All-Star Game on Sunday in Charlotte, needed just three quarters to notch his 40th double-double of the season. The blossoming Isaac nearly had as many points in the first quarter (16) as the Pelicans did (17). In addition to his career-best scoring night, Isaac added seven rebounds and two blocks. It was the seventh straight game in which the nearly 7-foot Isaac has blocked at least two shots.
Evan Fournier scored 14 of his 22 in the first quarter, while Aaron Gordon chipped in 20 points, two 3-pointers and two steals. Orlando shot 44.2 percent from the floor with 13 points. They held New Orleans to 38.3 percent shooting.
``I told (assistant coach) Mike Batiste when we walked off (the court), `That was a professional effort,’’ Clifford said of the completeness of the Magic’s rout. ``The way we played out on the floor, you can tell that we’ve got good focus right now and hopefully we’ve got one more in us.’’
Orlando will be back at the Amway Center on Thursday for its final game before the break for the NBA All-Star Game. It will be against none other than the Charlotte Hornets, owners of a 13-game winning streak over the Magic that incredibly dates back to December of 2015.
``It would be huge to beat them because we haven’t beaten them in a long time,’’ Vucevic said. ``They’ve beaten us twice this year and we lost by a lot both times. So, it would be a great win for us if we can get it.’’
New Orleans was never in the game and it seemed disinterested most of the night. That could be a byproduct of superstar forward Anthony Davis’ trade request two weeks ago. In 24 minutes on Tuesday, Davis made just one of nine field goals and scored just three points. Head coach Alvin Gentry is trying to make the best of a poor situation, but clearly the Davis saga is bothering the team.
``It’s really not a topic. He’s trying to play at a level that he’s always played at and we’re trying to play him in situations where he’s familiar with it,’’ Gentry said. ``Like I’ve said, I don’t think you’ll see him play 40 minutes in a game because that doesn’t make sense to me. And if you ask him, I’m sure he’d say the same thing. So, we’re here, we’re just coaching and he’s just playing and that’s the way it should be.’’
Former Magic guard E’Twaun Moore led the Pelicans with 19 points.
After seeing an early 28-point lead shrink to 14, the Magic came out in the third quarter motivated and buried the Pelicans. A 13-4 run to open the half when Orlando drilled three 3-pointers pushed the lead back to 76-50 and it was 92-61 by the start of the fourth period.
``Early in the season we dropped a couple, or a handful of games where we’d be up by 15 or 20 points and we’d let the other team get back into the game,’’ Isaac said. ``These last few games we haven’t allowed that to happen.’’
Clearly riding the momentum of their best stretch of play all season, Orlando made six of its first 11 shots and used a 13-0 burst in the first quarter to break the game wide open. The Magic remarkably led by as much as 28 in the first quarter and took a comfortable 63-46 edge to the locker room at halftime.
Up 7-6 in the early going, the Magic used the torrid shooting of Fournier and Isaac to rip off a jaw-dropping 32-5 run. When Isaac buried a 3-pointer from the right wing, Orlando shockingly had a 39-11 bulge and the few fans in the crowd at Smoothie King Center booed lustily.
Now, the Magic’s mission is to close out this hot stretch before the NBA All-Star Game with another victory that would further demonstrate the high level that they are playing now.
``This has been our best stretch of the season and hopefully we can keep it up because we all feel the momentum,’’ said Vucevic, who made 10 of 18 shots. ``WE have to stick with what we’ve been doing. We’ve had stretches where we’ve played great and stretches where we haven’t played so well, and we know that things can turn around quickly in this league and we have to stay focused. We’re still not where we want to be, so this is still a small, but great step for us and we have to keep building.’’
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