ORLANDO – Undoubtedly, much of the credit for the Orlando Magic digging their way out of an early 2-6 hole and impressively clawing back to 8-8 belongs to center Nikola Vucevic, forward Aaron Gordon and guards Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross.
Meanwhile, point guard DJ Augustin – a major question mark prior to the season because of durability and defense issues – has mostly flown below the radar. That has been somewhat by design, head coach Steve Clifford stressed, as the veteran point guard has ``sacrificed’’ much of his offensive game to make sure that he gets others involved on a nightly basis.
That all changed on Saturday as Augustin sensed a weakness in the way the Los Angeles Lakers were defending pick-and-roll plays and he launched himself into attack mode against inexperienced guards Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart.
Augustin scored 22 points and handed out seven assists and he got plenty of help from Vucevic’s inside domination in a stirring 130-117 defeat of LeBron James and the Lakers at the Amway Center.
``He was dominating tonight, he really was,’’ raved Gordon, referring to Augustin. ``He was getting whatever he wanted and dicing them up. Layups, passes all type of stuff and he orchestrated the game beautifully.’’
Vucevic, one of the Magic’s many heroes of Wednesday’s come-from-behind defeat of Philadelphia with 30 points, scored 36 points on Saturday by making 15 of 23 shots. He is the first Magic player to have at least 30 points in consecutive games since former Orlando standout Victor Oladipo did it in March of 2015.
The 7-foot center added 13 rebounds in 31 minutes. Vucevic scored 24 of his season-best 36 points in the second half by making 10 of 14 shots. When he wasn’t dominating L.A. big men JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler, he was making the Lakers pay for downsizing and trying to guard him with forwards.
``Coach (Clifford) has been putting a big emphasis on exploiting that when (defenses) go small – whether I have a small guy on me or Aaron does,’’ said Vucevic, who is now averaging 19.9 points and 10.9 rebounds a game. ``We can use that to our advantage and get some easy ones inside, especially if we’re in the bonus. Tonight, and in the last game, I was effective in (the lane) and we just kept going to it. We ran some good plays and my teammates set some good screens to get me open and find me in the right spots. We’re going to keep exploiting it as much as we can.’’
Playing before the seventh-largest crowd in Magic history (19,249), Orlando (8-8) won for sixth time in the past eight games to get to .500 for the first time since it was 2-2. The Magic also followed up Wednesday’s thrilling defeat of Philadelphia with a sixth straight defeat of the Lakers (8-7) at the Amway Center.
``I said it from the beginning when we were 2-6, it’s a long season and we’ve got to stay positive when we have those down situations,’’ said Augustin, who had nine points and three assists in the third quarter alone. ``And we’ve got to stay humble when we’re up and winning. It’s a long season, a marathon and not a sprint, and we’ve got to get better every day.’’
Los Angeles came into Saturday having won four straight thanks to some of the best all-around play of James’ career. However, the four-time league MVP had a difficult time getting much of any flow going against the defense of Jonathan Isaac and Gordon. James, who will play in Miami on Saturday and back in Cleveland on Wednesday, finished with 22 points and seven assists. He made only eight of 19 shots and didn’t play in the fourth quarter.
In his second game back after missing six straight earlier in the season because of an ankle injury, Isaac swatted a career-best five shots – four of them in the second quarter. He added seven points and five rebounds to go with his five swats and stellar defense against James.
``For (Isaac) to do what he did against LeBron – sometimes LeBron had to change his shot – and he did that against a guy 6-8, LeBron’s height,’’ Augustin said of Orlando’s second-year forward. ``He can be a great defender in this league. He’s still young and has a lot of improvement to go, but this is a big thing for him.’’
Orlando led by as much as 21 points early in the fourth thanks to the strong third-quarter play by Augustin and Vucevic. The Lakers made a late push and got as close as 118-108, but L.A. coach Luke Walton chose to not bring James back into the game. Ultimately, the Magic turned the Lakers back and got the victory.
Orlando made just one of its first nine 3-point shots, but it finished 11 of 32 from beyond the arc. The Magic shot a stellar 53.8 percent from the floor in scoring a season-best 130 points.
Evan Fournier had 15 points, five rebounds and four assists. Gordon chipped in 12 points, while Ross added 13 points and two more 3-pointers. Jonathon Simmons (12 points and six assists) played his best game of the season, while Jonathan Isaac had a career-best five blocked shots to go with his seven points and five rebounds.
``I thought our ball movement was good and the assist numbers attest to that – 28 assists out of 50 makes,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``We did a lot of good things.’’
Lance Stephenson scored 19 points off L.A.’s bench, while Brandon Ingram chipped in 17 points.
Gordon was questionable to play much of Saturday after continuing to be bothered by pain from a sprained left ankle. However, Gordon got treatment throughout the day on Saturday, worked out about 45 minutes prior to tipoff and made the decision to give it a go for his team. Clifford has been complimentary of Gordon’s toughness all season, noting that he’s played at least three games while fighting through minor injuries.
``I didn’t think I was going to play when I woke up this morning,’’ Gordon said. ``My ankle was super swollen this morning and as I went through the day the swelling lessened and lessened after we worked on it a lot. I figured there was nothing wrong with it but just the swelling and a little weakness, so I figured I’d give it a shot.’’
The Magic will be back in action again on Sunday when they play the second night of rare home/home back-to-back. Orlando hosts the New York Knicks on Sunday. Tipoff on Sunday is just after 6 p.m. Orlando whipped New York 115-89 last Sunday for the largest victory in franchise history at Madison Square Garden. That night, the Magic scored the game’s first 10 points, hit seven 3-pointers in the second quarter and buried 17 shots from beyond the arc in the game.
Relatively speaking, Orlando came into Saturday riding a bit of luck in making things difficult for James through the years. In 53 career regular-season games against the Magic prior to Saturday, James has averaged 25.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.2 assists. For comparisons sake, James’ 25.7 ppg. is his fifth-lowest scoring average against any of the NBA’s 30 teams.
James was coming off one of the most efficient games of his career on Wednesday, but he struggled somewhat on both ends of the floor against the Magic.
``After the first quarter, we were pretty bad defensively,’’ said James, who moved into fifth all-time in scoring in the NBA earlier in the week. ``We had a lot of breakdowns, which is uncharacteristic of us late. Give Orlando credit. They had us in positions where they took advantage of us for not being in the right spots defensively.’’
Up nine at the half following a stellar second-quarter effort, the Magic carried the momentum over to the third quarter when they throttled the Lakers for the most part. Orlando extended its lead out to as much as 21 when Vucevic and Augustin dominated in the period. The 7-footer made eight of 11 shots for 16 third-quarter points. Augustin had nine points and three assists in the period, allowing Orlando to take a 100-81 edge into the fourth.
``I thought his decision-making, you know, was (solid). He was turning the corner and we really have the ability to spread the floor with (Vucevic) and Mo (Bamba), so a lot of times there’s room for penetration,’’ Clifford said of Augustin’s play on Saturday. ``He got some layups and he created some corner threes and he’s really playing well.’’
Augustin once again had one of the highlight-worthy plays of the night when he drove the lane and flipped a behind-the-back pass to the corner where Gordon buried a 3-pointer. Augustin likes the options that he has now coming out of pick-and-roll plays because of Orlando’s many weapons around him.
``It’s tough for teams to guard us in the pick-and-roll because (Vucevic) can shoot the ball so well,’’ Augustin said. ``When I come off and he screens those guards, I have a clear lane to make the layup or I have (Vucevic) on the pop-back jump shot. (The Lakers) really had trouble with that and it worked for us.’’
Orlando’s especially strong effort in the second and third quarters was good enough it to get a fifth win in the past seven games and get them back to .500. However, Vucevic said the team can’t relax at all.
``It’s very early in the season and we haven’t accomplished anything yet,’’ Vucevic said. ``We can feel good about where we are, but we can’t be satisfied at all. We have to keep going. It’s good to see we can do it and we know what works for us, but it’s still on us to get better every day.’’
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