Postgame Report: Magic 122, Hawks 103

by John Denton

ATLANTA – Two days after Nikola Vucevic sharply proclaimed that the fate of the team’s season hung precariously in the balance in an impassioned postgame speech, the Orlando Magic went out and played with an edge and a precision that had been missing of late.

After whipping the Atlanta Hawks 122-103 behind 29 points and 14 rebounds from Vucevic, 29 more points from Evan Fournier and contributions throughout from several teammates, the Magic spoke of the need to keep Vucevic’s straight-to-the-point message in mind and prove that they can summons the same sort of hunger over the many tests to come.

``I thought what (Vucevic) said was right when he said that these next three games are basically our season,’’ Fournier said of Vucevic’s fiery postgame speech to the team late Saturday night. ``That’s how we have to see these next three games – like Game 7s, playoff intensity – whatever it takes, but we have to win if we want to stay in the playoff race. We’ve dropped so many games that we never should have dropped. … His message was really like, `Yo, we have to beat these (Hawks) or our season is over, and he was right.’’

Orlando (20-27) wiped out an early nine-point lead, used a game-turning 10-0 run in the second quarter and played well on both ends of the floor in the second half. The Magic were able to end a three-game losing streak and win for the eighth time on the road this season. Orlando also ended a three-game losing streak in Atlanta, winning here for the first time since December of 2016.

``Except for the first couple of minutes when our defense really wasn’t there, I felt like the rest of the game we were really locked in,’’ said Vucevic, who made 12 of 23 shots and all four of his free throws. ``We came ready to play and win this game. It was a big win for us. We decided that these next couple of games can define our season, so the first one we got, and we played well. Now, we have to make sure we play even better in Brooklyn (on Wednesday).’’

Fournier scored 19 of his 29 points after halftime as the Magic shot 50.5 percent from the floor and drilled 11 3-point shots in the game. Fournier said that it’s not only the Magic’s playoff hopes that were hanging in the balance coming into Monday. Actually, he stressed, the team’s future together is likely on line with the NBA trade deadline (Feb. 7) looming.

``We’re not stupid; we know that if we don’t make the playoffs this year, this is probably it for us,’’ Fournier said, referring to the makeup of the Magic’s roster. ``Just like (Vucevic) and myself, we like it (in Orlando) and we like to play with each other. We’ve struggled for so long here and we want to see the results. We spent so much time and hours with the Magic, and you want to see it work.’’

Terrence Ross led an Orlando bench that played especially well in turning the game around in the second quarter with 16 points, seven assists and three steals.

The Magic’s 20th victory – and first of the season against the Southeast Division-rival Hawks (14-32) – came much earlier than in last year’s forgettable 25-57 season. Orlando didn’t notch its 20th victory until March 3rd last season and by then it already had 43 losses.

Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the roster, wants nothing to do with another season like the one from a year ago and he said so following a third straight defeat on Saturday night. Vucevic has been a part of six straight non-playoff seasons in Orlando and he spoke up on Saturday in front of the team prior to head coach Steve Clifford and the media entering the locker room. The usually mild-mannered Vucevic hardly yelled at the team, but he made his point with the forcefulness of his words to the squad.

``I’d say he was just adamant, and you could just see the want on his face,’’ recalled Magic teammate Jonathan Isaac (eight points, nine rebounds and two blocks on Monday), referring to Vucevic’s talk with the team on Saturday. ``It was just the realization that it really is go time and we need to fasten our seat belts and get to work.’’

Said Vucevic of his message to remind his team that it can still make the playoffs if it can get back on track: ``We’re understand that if we don’t wake up now it’s going to be really, really hard for us going forward if we don’t get some wins in these next few games. Coach (Clifford) talks about (the playoffs), we know it and see it, and it’s on us to respond and play the right way. Things turn around quickly just like two weeks ago things were going great for us. Now, we’re struggling. But, if we can get a couple of wins and play consistently for 48 minutes we can be right there (in the playoff race).’’

Playing in an afternoon tip-time because of the national holiday to celebrate the enormous contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the civil rights movement, the Magic reacted quite well on Monday. Orlando grabbed the lead in the second quarter and smashed Atlanta in the third quarter (31-21) and fourth quarter (31-25).

``The second half was really good,’’ Clifford said. ``We had 24 (defensive) deflections and (46) points allowed. (Offensively), we had more inside-out (play) and some good individual performances, too. But our defense was just much better.’’

Former Magic big man Dewayne Dedmon showed off his much-improved shooting stroke from the outside and pumped in 24 points for the Hawks. Dedmon drilled five of six 3-point shots – a weapon that he didn’t have in his offensive arsenal during his time with the Magic from 2013-16. Trae Young, the No. 5 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, finished with 21 points and six assists despite missing all three of his 3-point shots.

The Magic came into the game in desperation mode after dropping their previous three games. Just last week, Orlando was riding high after beating Boston and Houston on consecutive nights, but it was unable to sustain that momentum and lost games to Detroit, Brooklyn and Milwaukee.

Orlando was once again without standout forward Aaron Gordon, who missed his second consecutive games since injuring his lower back in Friday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets. Gordon, the Magic’s second-leading scorer and rebounder on the season, is hopeful of practicing on Tuesday in New York as Orlando prepares for Wednesday’s rematch against the Nets.

Clifford said the production from Fournier was especially important with the team still missing Gordon. On Monday, Fournier made half of his 18 shots and half of his six 3-pointers while also contributing eight free throws and seven assists.

Up three at the half, Orlando exerted its defensive muscle and rode more hot shooting from Fournier and Vucevic in the third period to take a 91-78 edge into the fourth. The Magic held the Hawks to eight of 22 shots (36 percent) in the third period, while making 13 of 21 (61.9 percent) of their own shots.

Fournier (11 third-quarter points) and Vucevic (10 third-quarter points) led the way in Orlando’s31-21 edge in the 12 minutes after halftime.

``When I get going inside it really gets more going and makes me aggressive the rest of the game,’’ said Vucevic, who beautifully mixed up his post-up game with shooting from the perimeter. ``I really wanted to get the team going early on offensively to carry us a little bit. A feel like the guys really fed off of me after that first quarter and started playing well. And down the stretch, guys really made big shots for us.’’

Bad defensively in the early going, the Magic turned things around late in the first quarter and got going offensively in the second quarter. Those two factors, combined with a promising 18-7 run midway through the second quarter, allowed Orlando to hit the locker room at the half with a 60-57 edge.

Things looked rocky in the early going as Orlando allowed three dunks, two layups and two uncontested 3-pointers to fall behind by nine points in the game’s first four minutes.

However, the Magic got back in it late in the first quarter and early in second period thanks to the play of reserves Jarell Martin, who drilled two first-half 3-pointers. In the game, Martin hit three of five shots and had eight points and a block in 16 minutes.

Down 44-38, Orlando scored the game’s next 10 points – a layup by rookie Mo Bamba; a Ross jumper; and consecutive threes from Martin and Ross – to grab its first lead of the game.

Orlando fed off that strong finish to the second quarter with a gritty second half. With the outcome still very much in the balance, Vucevic and Isaac had big blocked shots to seal a victory that the Magic knew they had to have following Vucevic’s impassioned speech on Saturday.

``I know I did (take Vucevic’s words to hear) and I’m sure our team did as well,’’ Isaac said. ``Our second-half effort definitely showed that tonight. Going forward, that has to be there from the beginning of the game against Brooklyn (on Wednesday).’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.