ATLANTA – With his Orlando Magic facing a particularly taxing set of circumstances after winning in Milwaukee a night earlier and not arriving in Atlanta until 3 a.m., head coach Steve Clifford knew he would learn something – either positive or negative – about the collective will of his team on Sunday night.
Would the Magic push through their obvious sleep deprivation and fatigue and keep their stellar play of late going in a game that was theirs to win? Or, as so often was the case early in the season as they battled inconsistency, would the Magic succumb to their surroundings and fall short against the reeling Atlanta Hawks?
``You win this game, you’re going to know that you have the right kind of guys, that they’re serious about it and are ones who will get themselves ready to play,’’ said Clifford, who had to call timeout early in the night and had to remind his team of the challenge.
Clifford got a resounding answer to his questions on Sunday as the Magic rode stellar play from all-star center Nikola Vucevic and blossoming forward Jonathan Isaac and got big contributions from all over the roster in a resounding 124-108 defeat of the Hawks at State Farm Arena.
``We’re playing for something and we’re trying to make the playoffs and we can’t make any excuses,’’ said Magic veteran point guard D.J. Augustin, who had 14 points and 10 assists against Atlanta rookie Trae Young. ``We don���t want to look back and say, `Dang, I wish we would have done this or fought a little harder.’ Tonight, was all about fighting – fighting through fatigue and fighting through mental fatigue. We just had to come out and find a way and we did that.’’
The victory allowed the Magic (25-32) to equal their longest winning streak of the season at three games. They hadn’t done that since Nov. 14-18 after beating the 76ers, Lakers and Knicks.
Clearly, the Magic are a team with a different air of confidence now and one starting to string together several strong efforts in a row. Orlando has won five of six games to surge back into contention for a playoff spot in the pedestrian Eastern Conference. The Magic continue to keep the pressure on the rival Miami Heat, who started the day in the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference, lost to the Golden State Warriors on Sunday night and now sit just 1 ½ games ahead of the Magic.
``I don’t know how you can gauge belief, but this is as well as we’ve played at both ends of the floor,’’ Clifford said. ``You go all the way back to the game at Houston (on Jan. 27), we’ve really put two weeks and a few games here where we just have more purpose and where we don’t give as many possessions away.’’
Vucevic throttled the Hawks (18-38) in the early going and finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds for his team-best 39th double-double of the season. Isaac, a second-year forward who continues to make strides in terms of his confidence and aggression, had 17 points, three 3-pointers and a career-best-tying five blocked shots. The nearly 7-foot Isaac stirringly swatted three shots on one Atlanta possession in the second quarter, giving him a sixth straight game with at least two swats.
``It’s just about comfortability for me,’’ Isaac said. ``The more and more comfortable that I get and the more time I spend playing the game at this level, the better I feel that I’m going to do. I think that’s showing offensively and defensively now and I just want to keep it rolling.’’
All five Magic starters and seven players total scored in double figures on a night when Orlando shot 47.3 percent from the floor and drilled 13 3-point shots. Evan Fournier chipped in 17 points and seven assists, while Terrence Ross continued his strong bench play of late, pouring in another 18 points with two 3-pointers. Aaron Gordon had 14, while second-year forward Wes Iwundu shot the ball well and added 10 points.
The seven players in double figures equaled a season high that had happened three times previously.
``We talked it among us that we had to leave it all on the floor, we’ll get a day off (on Monday) and in the first three or four minutes, we came out sloppy, which was expected,’’ Vucevic said. ``Then we responded well, took the lead and never looked back. Wins like this can help down at the end (of the season) when you can find a way to get wins in tough back-to-backs. So, it was a big win for us, for sure.’’
John Collins, who had three of his shots swatted by Isaac during that stirring second-quarter sequence, led the Hawks – losers of three straight games – with 15 points. Young, the No. 3 pick of last June’s NBA Draft, had 13 points and seven assists despite making just three of nine shots.
The Magic didn’t get to Atlanta hotel rooms until after 3 a.m. winning in Milwaukee on Saturday night. In that game, the Magic took advantage of superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and handed the Bucks their worst loss of the season, 103-83.
The Magic have been solid in back-to-back sets of games this season, going 12-10 overall. They are8-3 in the first nights of those sets and 4-7 on the second night.
Augustin, an 11-year veteran of the NBA, said that while he’s proud of how the Magic have responded with their best stretch of the season during the critical stretch before the all-star break, the team can’t afford a letdown now.
``I mean, it feels great, but at the same time we can’t get comfortable because we’re still behind and we’re still not in the place that we want to be right now,’’ Augustin said. ``So, we’ve got to keep fighting until the end of the season. Hopefully, we can fight our way and earn our way into the playoffs.’’
After playing twice in the past two nights, the Magic will get a well-deserved day off on Monday in New Orleans. Orlando will end its five-night, three-game road trip on Tuesday against superstar forward Anthony Davis and the Pelicans. The Magic will then host the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday in the final game before the break for the NBA All-Star Game.
Up 63-48 at the half following some strong play over the first 24 minutes, the Magic took most of the intrigue out of the night with another 12-2 burst to open the third period. Orlando ultimately outscored the Hawks 35-26 in the third period, allowing it to push the lead to as much as 26 points over the first 36 minutes.
Orlando showed no sign of fatigue early on, getting contributions from several spots on the roster to blow out to a 63-48 lead on the Hawks by intermission. Orlando shot 46.8 percent from the floor, drilled 7 3-pointers and their aggression in attacking the rim resulted in 13 free throw attempts (with 12 makes).
Vucevic got the Magic off to a stellar start, throttling the Hawks with 11 points, four rebounds and two assists in his first nine minutes on the floor. By halftime, the all-star had already compiled 15 points and seven rebounds.
``His best games are when he starts down low – not off play calls, but when we just find him – and then he works his way out (to the perimeter),’’ Clifford said of the 7-footer, who leads the Magic in scoring and rebounding. ``That’s what he did tonight.’’
Isaac, who continues to blossom nightly for the Magic, had one of the best sequences of the season in the second quarter when he rose up and blocked John Collins’ shot three straight times. After gathering the rebound and sprinting down the floor, Isaac ended the next Magic possession with a 3-pointer.
That stirring sequence, which caused the Magic reserves to get up off the bench and cheer, allowed Isaac to extend his streak of games with at least two blocks to six games. Over those previous five games, the nearly 7-foot Isaac used his length and exquisite timing to block 12 shots.
``That (sequence) was just about me trying to make a play and trying to bring energy to our team,’’ Isaac said. ``It was just all about guys making plays for our team.’’
After the win was complete, and after the Magic got contributions from various spots on their roster, Clifford professed a strong appreciation for his team’s focus and fight.
``This was not an easy back-to-back. Back-to-backs never are, but these where we have a 3 a.m. landing and (the Hawks) are a hard team to play against, I thought the guys did a good job,’’ Clifford raved. ``I just told (the team) that I was proud of them. I thought it was a professional, mature, purposeful 48 minutes. Guys started right, we had a good attitude and it was a good night for us.’’
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