ORLANDO – A significant streak – one way or another – was bound to fall on Thursday, and the Orlando Magic are plenty happy that their season-best winning spree is still alive and the futility against the Charlotte Hornets has finally ended.
Orlando pushed its feel-good, season-saving winning streak to five games on Thursday and, in the process, took out three-plus years of frustration on the rival Hornets.
The Magic tied a season high with 71 first-half points, built a commanding lead as large as 40 points and dominated Charlotte to the tune of a 127-89 rout to end a 13-game skid against the Hornets.
Orlando (27-32) pushed its winning streak to five for the first time since Nov. 25-Dec. 3, 2015. Speaking of 2015, December of that year was the last time the Magic had beaten Charlotte (27-30) prior to Thursday. Two of those 13 consecutive losses against the Hornets had come this season by whopping margins of 32 and 25 points.
``Thirteen games against them we hadn’t won, and the last two this year we had lost badly, so we really wanted to get this,’’ said all-star center Nikola Vucevic, who finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds in just three quarters of work. ``So, it was a great win for us. We played great – maybe our best game all year. And it’s also great because it was our fifth game in a row that we won. So, we feel really good about where we are now.’’
On this night, the suddenly surging Magic flipped the script by dominating the Hornets on both ends of the floor. The Magic shot 52.2 percent, drilled 17 3-pointers and also got big nights from blossoming forward Jonathan Isaac (16 points and six rebounds) and top reserve Terrence Ross (21 points and three 3-pointers).
Orlando was just as good – if not better – defensively, holding the Hornets to 35.1 percent shooting and four-of-31 accuracy from 3-point range. All-Star starter Kemba Walker, who has been a Magic killer for years, missed nine of his first 10 shots, was off line on all seven of his 3-point tries and finished with just 10 points on four-of-20 shooting.
``It was like a paradigm shift, if that makes sense, because (the Hornets) have been whipping us for so long,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who added 10 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. ``After (Thursday’s rout) who knows what’s going to happen next game (against Charlotte), but I’m glad we got them this time.’’
The Magic’s victory allowed them to climb to within 1.5 games of seventh-seeded Charlotte and within a half-game of Detroit (26-30) and Miami (26-30) for the eighth spot and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. It’s the closest the Magic have been to a playoff spot at the all-star break since the 2011-12 season when Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick and Hedo Turkoglu still played for the franchise.
``I’m extremely impressed because we’ve found a way to come together and I don’t know exactly what it is and what has ignited this stretch in us, but hopefully it’s something that can continue to be a part of this team,’’ said Isaac, who has played the best basketball of his career over the last nine games. ``I feel great going into the break and we’re excited to come back and play (after the time off).’’
Also, Thursday’s win means the Magic have now beaten each of the other 14 teams in the Eastern Conference. Some of their best victories have come against the upper crust of the conference, beating Milwaukee (once), Toronto (once), Indiana (one), Philadelphia (once) and Boston (twice). An argument can even be made that the break for the All-Star Game is coming at a bad time for the Magic, owners of the second-longest active winning streak in the league for now. Only Toronto – winners of six straight – has a longer winning streak.
``In terms of how we’re playing, yes (the break is coming at a bad time), but you could see tonight that we’re tired as are (the Hornets). So, we all need a break,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``But we’re playing well, and this is the best we’ve played all year, obviously.’’
On Thursday, the Magic’s balanced attack also saw Evan Fournier (12 points) and Wes Iwundu (11 points) play well. D.J. Augustin (eight points and seven assists) opened each half with a 3-pointer, while reserve point guard Isaiah Briscoe (six points, seven rebounds and four assists) added two more 3-pointers.
Orlando came into Thursday having ripped off four consecutive wins against Minnesota, Milwaukee, Atlanta and New Orleans. Those last three wins came on the road and all by at least 16 points – a first in the 30-year history of the franchise. Now, the Magic have a fifth straight win and another impressive victory by a lopsided margin.
``The thing is we’ve been doing this from the start, having games where we’ve been up 15 and 20. But we’ve grown in terms of maturity and we’re finishing games off now,’’ said Isaac, who came into Thursday averaging 13.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.62 blocks and 1.25 steals in his previous eight games – numbers he likely would have hit again had he not been out resting over the final 14 minutes. ``We’re getting that big lead in the start of games and now we’re finding a way to close it out.’’
Recent history hadn’t been kind to the Magic when they had played the Hornets. Charlotte coach James Borrego, formerly an interim head coach in Orlando in 2015, said before the game that the 13-game streak mattered little to his team. Clearly, it mattered to the Magic in a big way.
``We don’t talk about it. Those 13 games mean nothing for us tonight,’’ Borrego said prior to tipoff. ``Those are 13 games that happened in the past. We watched the two games from this season, and we learned from those. Those 13 games don’t impact tonight. Tonight, is its own game. We don’t talk about it and if they talk about it, that’s up to them.’’
Jeremy Lamb led the Hornets with 14 points on Thursday, while Cody Zeller added 13 points and seven rebounds. Reserves for both teams played throughout the fourth quarter because of the lopsided nature of the score.
Said Charlotte’s Malik Monk: ``They wanted it more. We didn’t have enough energy today. Good job to Orlando.’’
The Magic, with the exception of Vucevic, will now break for the NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte. The team won’t return to organized workouts until next week. Orlando will be back at the Amway Center on Feb. 22 when it hosts the Chicago Bulls.
Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic, is a first-time all-star and he is eager be among some of the game’s greatest players. Vucevic came into Thursday’s game averaging career highs in scoring (20.6), rebounds (12.1), assists (3.8), blocks (1.14) and 3-point shooting (37.9 percent). He racked up 40 double-doubles in the first 58 games while leading the team in scoring 26 times and in rebounding 56 times.
At Sunday’s All-Star Game, Vucevic will be playing for Team Giannis after being picked by the Milwaukee Bucks superstar. He’ll be teammates with boyhood idol, Dirk Nowitzki and close friend Nikola Jokic.
``In Charlotte, it’ll be crazy, and I’ll have a lot of stuff to do, but it’s worth it and I’ll take it every year,’’ Vucevic of his weekend to come. ``I’ll go on vacation after the season. After I come back, I’ll take two days to rest and not do much.’’
Already in possession of a 35-point bulge by halftime – their biggest lead in any game all season – Orlando pushed it to a jaw-dropping 39 points in the third period. Charlotte scored nearly as many points in the third quarter (31) as it did in the first half (34), but still found itself in a 98-67 hole against the surging Magic.
Orlando was dialed in and ready from the start on Thursday, dominating the Hornets on both ends of the floor to take a commanding 71-36 lead into the locker room at intermission. The 71 points by the Magic equaled the season high of 71 points in a first quarter, which was set a week ago against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Orlando drilled 10 of its first 17 shots and led by as much as 15 points in the first quarter. It would only get more one-sided in the second period as the Magic got plenty of production from their starters and subs in surging ahead by as much as 35 on a Charlotte team clearly looking ahead to the NBA All-Star Game in its home city.
The Magic, meanwhile, wouldn’t mind continuing to play considering how torrid they are as a team. Instead, the team will take some time off and try to pick it back up where they left off at the conclusion of Thursday’s thumping of the Hornets.
``It’s really been a great stretch for us, not only for our wins, but the way that we’ve been playing,’’ said Vucevic, who notched his 41st double-double of the season on Thursday. ``We’ve won four games now by 15 (or more) with pretty impressive performances on both ends of the floor. A lot of guys scoring in double digits, playing together and defending really well.
``It’s been a great performance by this team in the last five games and hopefully we can take this break to kind of recover and rest a little bit,’’ Vucevic added. ``But we also need to regroup and come back ready to go.’’
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