By John Denton Nov. 10, 2017
PHOENIX – In the eyes of Orlando Magic coach Frank Vogel, basketball is a simple game as long as players follow one very basic rule on the offensive end – they should pass when covered and shoot when left open.
Vogel has repeatedly rammed that point home to his Magic early this season, encouraging them to embrace the pass and to consider the team’s go-to scorer to be the teammate that is the most open. Improved passing has led to improved shooting and it’s helped the Magic skyrocket to near the top of the NBA as one of the league’s most potent offenses.
No play typified Orlando’s pass-first mentality more on Friday than a sequence in the third quarter when Aaron Gordon had it rolling, but instead drew the defense to him and found teammate Shelvin Mack wide open for a corner 3-pointer that sent the Magic on their way to another win.
Orlando used pinpoint passing, some heady cuts to the rim and more deadeye 3-point shooting on Friday to slice and dice the rebuilding Phoenix Suns in a 128-112 victory at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
``Aaron played a wonderful basketball game – and not just by making shots when the ball swung to him. His lack of forcing, which was also an issue with him early in his career, he let the game come to him tonight,’’ Vogel said, using Gordon as an example of Orlando’s improved passing. ``He had the opportunity to take some heat-check shots, but he made the extra pass. When he hit Shelvin Mack, that was one of the best plays of our season. He’s playing the right way and we’re playing the right way. We’re working the (pass) and hopefully we can keep it going.’’
Up one at the half, Orlando (8-4) broke things open in the third quarter with a dazzling 33-20 performance. And when the Magic pushed the lead to as much as 25 points in the fourth, it allowed Vogel to rest his starters – something that could help on Saturday when the Magic play in Denver on the second night of a back-to-back set of games.
``In the second half we played better on defense and played with more intensity and that led to our offense,’’ said Magic guard Terrence Ross, who broke out of a season-long shooting slump (17 points and four 3-pointers) and defensively smothered Phoenix standout Devin Booker (three-of-10 shooting, nine points).
Orlando shot 51.9 percent from the floor and dished out 29 assists. The Magic, which entered the night third in the NBA in assists, had nine assists in the first quarter and set up 16 of their first 24 field goals with passes. By the midpoint of the third quarter, Orlando had registered 19 assists on their first 28 field goals.
Opening its eight-day, four-game swing through the Western Conference in grand style, Orlando won its second straight game. The Magic now have a .667 winning percentage – a plus-.313 percent improvement over last season’s .354 winning percentage (a 29-53 record) and a mark that leads the NBA for the best turnaround so far. This is the Magic’s best start since the 2011-12 season when they were 9-3.
The Magic are now 4-0 against Western Conference foes – a first since 2004-05 – and they are 3-0 on the road versus the West after wins in New Orleans, Memphis and Phoenix. It is the first time in franchise history that Orlando has opened a season with three straight victories on the road against Western Conference foes, according to Stats, Inc.
``It’s good to get this win and get some great momentum,’’ Gordon said of opening the first West Coast trip with a victory. ``We know that we’ve got a tough team in Denver coming up and they just got a couple of good wins. We’re just going to continue our strong play of moving the ball, sharing the ball and playing the way that we know that we can play.’’
Gordon, who attended the University of Arizona and was cheered by Wildcats fans in Phoenix, showed off the massive improvements to his game with 22 points. The 6-foot-9 forward, who has already established himself as an early candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, made seven of nine shots and hit both of his 3-point shots. He’s now shooting 59.5 percent from 3-point range (25 of 42), making him the league leader in that category.
``I’m pretty confident with a lot of reps, the right reps and being mindful while I practice,’’ Gordon said of his growth as a shooter. ``It’s just about making the right basketball player. I’m open or they are leaving me open and I’m stepping up and knocking them down.’’
Nikola Vucevic, another Magic player who has greatly expanded his shooting range, hit six of 13 shots and three of six 3-pointers for 16 points. Jonathon Simmons was once again a dominant performer off the bench with 17 points and the Magic were a plus-26 on the scoreboard in his 26 minutes on the floor.
Evan Fournier had 14 points, but he missed all seven of his 3-point shots to snap his streak of consecutive games with at least one three at 36. Elfrid Payton, who played a second straight game despite lingering pain in left hamstring, had eight points, seven assists and four rebounds in 17 foul-plagued minutes.
Jonathan Isaac had 11 points, six rebounds, two blocks and a thunderous fourth-quarter dunk off the bench for Orlando. His late 3-pointer also helped the Magic stave off a Phoenix rally in the final minutes.
T.J. Warren scored 20 points for the Suns (4-9), while Alex Len chipped in 21 points and 13 rebounds. Mike James scored 18, while rookie Josh Jackson chipped in 18 off the bench.
Friday’s game was the first of a four-game Western Conference swing that will take the Magic to Denver (Saturday), Golden State (Monday) and Portland (Wednesday). Tomorrow’s game will present a distinct challenge for Orlando considering that it will be playing for a second time in as many nights while the Nuggets have been off since a Thursday night home defeat of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic, said he sees no reason that Orlando can’t keep its stellar start going because of the team’s simple and unselfish approach to the game.
``We believe that if we keep playing the right way we can keep it going,’’ Vucevic said. ``We’re shooting a high percentage, but it’s not like we’re taking crazy shots and they’re going in. We’re really working to get offensively to get good looks. A lot of our threes are wide-open looks and when we play with spacing we’re really hard to defend. If we keep playing that way we should be able to be as effective offensively.’’
Phoenix has been a team in turmoil much of the young season after losing the first three games by a combined 92 points, firing head coach Earl Watson on Oct. 22 and trading disgruntled guard Eric Bledsoe this week to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Suns do own impressive wins against Utah and Washington, but their rampant youth has made it difficult for them to compete most nights against veteran-laden squads.
Up one point at the intermission, the Magic broke the game open in the third and headed into the fourth quarter with a 97-83 lead. It could have been even bigger after Phoenix guard Devin Booker and head coach Jay Triano were hit with technical fouls in between the quarters, but Magic guard Shelvin Mack missed two free throws – a problem area all night for the Magic.
Not only did Orlando make 11 of 20 shots, drill four threes and hand out seven assists in the third, it finally clamped down defensively on the young Suns. Vogel rode top defenders, Simmons and Biyombo, in the third and they helped frustrate the Suns.
Orlando led 64-63 at the half, but it was a tenuous advantage because of the lack of defense played in the first two quarters. The Magic surrendered 53.8 percent shooting to Phoenix and Jackson ended with half with a tip-in basket just before the horn. The Suns scored 40 points in the paint in the game’s first 24 minutes.
The Magic was able to stay on top thanks to stellar shooting (55.8 percent) and passing (16 assists on the 24 field goals) early on. Orlando’s lead would have been much bigger had it been able to make more than 10 of 17 free throws in the game’s opening half.
Like Vucevic, Ross feels that the Magic have what it takes to keep their strong start going because of the way that they are sharing the ball amongst themselves. It’s a simple, yet fun way to play, Ross noted.
``The motto of our offense right now is, `Open man is king,’’’ Ross said. ``We’re trying to attack and swing it, attack and swing it and get it to the open man. Eventually something will open up for us, even if we have to use the whole 24 (seconds on the shot block). That’s the motto we’re playing with and it’s paying off big time for us.’’
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