Postgame Report: Magic 121, Thunder 108
By John Denton
Nov. 29, 2017
ORLANDO – Maybe, just maybe, winning this way to snap their unsightly losing streak – with some gritty and downright desperate play while withstanding another furious charge by Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook – will be just the medicine that helps cure what has ailed the Orlando Magic the past 2½ weeks.
Winless since Nov. 10 – a span of 19 days that covered nine consecutive losses to put their season in peril – the Magic dug deep in Wednesday’s second half to frustrate the Thunder and go up by as much as 22 points. Ultimately, the Magic had to weather another stirring surge by Westbrook, but they had enough down the stretch to gut out a 121-108 defeat of Oklahoma City.
Orlando (9-13) broke open a tied game late in the third quarter with a 23-3 run – including a stretch where it scored the first 13 points of the fourth period – to blow out to a big lead and eventually snap the nine-game skid.
At long last, the Magic played with a desperation and a hunger that has been absent in far too many lopsided losses of late. But when Aaron Gordon played the entire second half, when Elfrid Payton drove full-body extended out onto the floor for a loose ball and when Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic teamed up to box out Steven Adams – inspiring moments that showed off their hunger to win – the Magic were finally able to escape the grips of their nine-game skid.
``Losing kills your spirit, so we were just tired of that,’’ said Gordon, who pumped in 40 points and became the first player in franchise history with at least 40 points, 15 rebounds, four assists and four steals. ``We went out there (hungry) and wanted to come back in this locker room with a good feeling.’’
Orlando finally had a good feeling in the postgame after carving up slumping OKC (9-13) for 59.2 percent shooting and 13 3-pointers. Also, a Magic team had surrendered 117.2 points a game over the last nine losses had its best defensive game in weeks by limiting the star-studded Thunder to 39.6 percent shooting.
``We had our center (Vucevic) get on the floor for some loose balls, we had a lot of guys get on the floor for loose balls and we won some of those and you’ve got to have that if you’re going to win basketball games,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. ``We haven’t done that enough and I was proud of our guys.’’
Once 6-2 and seemingly safe at 8-4 after steadying themselves following a rash of injuries, the Magic fell into a troubling rut in recent weeks as their defense lagged and their ball movement disappeared. That led to the nine-game losing jag that threatened to ruin the season again before Christmas. All the losing had exhausted the franchise and simply getting a win of any kind was a huge relief to all involved on Wednesday, Vogel said.
``There’s no getting around that – it’s a relief to get around that part of it (with the losing streak) and to get a W and understand that we’ve said repeatedly throughout this that we’ve got a good team and we’ve just got to play a complete game,’’ Vogel said. ``And now our assignment is to do it again.’’
Added D.J. Augustin, who had six points and three assists in the fourth quarter and 11 points for the game: ``We were just tired of losing and nobody likes to lose like that. We’re tired of it and I know everybody in the organization is tired of it and we just wanted to change that around. Now, hopefully we can keep it going.’’
Gordon finished one point off his career high of 41 by making 13 of 23 shots, six of 12 threes and eight of 11 free throws. He missed his first three shots of the night – two of which were badly forced attempts that earned him a quick, in-game chat with Vogel – and he responded to will the Magic in nearly 44 minutes on the floor.
``It was really encouraging and it wasn’t like, `C’mon AG, you’re 0-for-three!’ No, it was super encouraging and his confidence didn’t waver in me at all,’’ Gordon said, recalling the pep talk he got from Vogel mid-game. ``I was just trying to find a rhythm and once I got a couple of shots up I was rolling.’’
The driving force behind big Thunder comebacks each of the past two seasons, Westbrook scored 20 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter. He made seven of 10 3-pointers with five of the threes coming over the final 12 minutes to put a scare into Orlando. OKC got to within 10 of the Magic on four instances in the fourth quarter, but Westbrook couldn’t finish off the comeback this time.
``I’m not going to lie to (the media): When Russ got two threes in a row, I was like, `Here we go again,’’ admitted Fournier, who had 16 points and three 3-pointers. ``But it feels good to win against these guys. They are a good team. When you have so many big names, it’s always great to get a win against them.’’
Payton was aggressive from start to finish and had 19 points, six assists and five rebounds, while Vucevic scored 15 points and had seven rebounds and seven assists. Gordon added 15 rebounds, but the Magic were still outrebounded by OKC 47-37.
Westbrook used some dazzling heroics to lead the Thunder to pulse-pounding victories each of the past two seasons in Orlando. In October of 2015, he scored 48 points and hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to send the game into extra time. Last March, he had 57 points in a triple-double as the Thunder won in overtime.
The Magic led 105-83 with 2:04 to play before Westbrook went into his one-man wrecking crew mode once again. At one point, he had three straight 3-pointers for the Thunder. His final 3-pointer got OKC to within 116-106, but Gordon would seal the game with a triple of his own.
Oklahoma City, one of the NBA’s biggest disappointment teams of the young season, came into Wednesday with an unsightly streak of its own. The Thunder came into Wednesday riding a six-game losing streak away from home. They haven’t won outside of OKC since a victory in Milwaukee on Halloween night.
The Magic suffered what could potentially be a big blow late in the second quarter when guard Terrence Ross appeared to have hyperextended his right knee. Landing after trying to block a layup, Ross’ right knee was hit by the foot of Westbrook, causing it to buckle. He needed help getting to his feet and did not return.
Ross, who was in his second game as a reserve after starting the first 20 games of the season, had two 3-pointers and six points in 14 minutes.
Orlando’s challenge only gets tougher on Friday as the reigning champion Golden State Warriors come to the Amway Center. The Warriors beat the Magic 110-100 on Nov. 13 to extend their winning streak over Orlando to nine games. In that game 2 ½ weeks ago, Orlando had it tied at 56 at the half, but it got hammered 32-19 in the third quarter. The Warriors, the NBA’s best third-quarter team all season, made 13 of 23 shots just after halftime even though Stephen Curry (thigh bruise) didn’t play that night.
Despite some wobbles and troubles rebounding the basketball, Orlando led by two at the half and took a 57-50 lead into the fourth quarter. The Magic got to that point by shooting 56.9 percent from the floor in the game’s first three quarters and riding stellar all-around play from Gordon, Vucevic and Payton. Orlando turned a 75-72 deficit into an 87-80 lead by holding the sputtering Thunder without a field goal for a stretch of 5 minutes, 12 seconds late in the third quarter. And when it started the fourth quarter with another 13-0 burst, the Magic finally had the cushion that would allow them to break free from the grips of the nine-game skid.
``We just needed a win period, to play a good basketball game and feel better,’’ Fournier said. ``Obviously, this doesn’t erase the nine-game losing streak, but it feels good. We played super hard with a lot of intensity and we played like a team that really wanted it, period. We’ve got to have the same individual preparation mentally and physically. Now, we just have to do it all over again.’’
The Magic won’t soon forget their nine-game losing streak, but if they can pull off consecutive home wins against OKC and Golden State, it would go a long way in reshaping the image of the Magic, Vogel said.
``Hopefully this is really powerful, but we’ll see because we’re still in the midst of a very difficult part of our schedule and every win matters,’’ Vogel said. ``To break the streak is a real positive. Our guys can breathe a bit of a sigh of relief for about 30 seconds until Golden State comes in here on Friday. We’ve got to go and play those guys and get another `W.’ Our season’s going to feel a whole lot different if we win (versus) OKC (Wednesday) night and if we’re able to get a win on Friday night.’’
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