ORLANDO – At some point, head coach Steve Clifford reminded prior to tipoff on Sunday, the Orlando Magic’s offense will invariably struggle to make shots and won’t churn quite as efficiently as it has during this recent hot stretch and the squad will have to depend on its grit to win games.
Fortunately for the Magic, Sunday was not that night.
Riding a record-tying first-quarter scoring performance, 31 points from forward Aaron Gordon, more all-around brilliance from Nikola Vucevic and a season-best 57.1 field goal percentage, the Magic outlasted the pesky New York Knicks 131-117 to keep alive their stellar streak of basketball.
A night after scoring a season-best 130 points in a victory against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Magic piled up another 131 points on Sunday. It is the first time in the 30-year history of the franchise that the Magic have scored at least 130 points in consecutive games.
``We get better and better each day because we get more comfortable with the offense and more comfortable with each other,’’ said Gordon, who scored 20 first-quarter points and totaled 17 of Orlando’s first 22 by making his first seven shots. ``Everybody is working and I’m super-proud with us. It’s an off day (on Monday), but I fully expect to see damn-near everybody in here. This team is dedicated, and we care.’’
Orlando (9-8) won for a third straight time and for the seventh time in the past nine games. Once 2-6 and riding a four-game losing streak, the Magic have turned their season around with their best stretch of offensive basketball in years.
The Magic have done it with a remarkable turnaround on the offensive end of the floor. Some 2 1/2 weeks ago, the Magic ranked 30thin the NBA in points per game, 30thin field goal percentage, 29thin 3-point percentage and 14thin assists. Over the last nine games – seven of which have been wins – they rank fifth in the league in scoring, first in field goal percentage, second in 3-point accuracy and first in assists. On Sunday, they easily set a new season high for field goal percentage and drilled 13 3-pointers in carving up the Knicks (4-13). Also, Orlando has scored at least 109 points in six straight games – the fourth-longest such streak in franchise history.
``I hope it’s who we can become, and the biggest key is whether we do it consistently,’’ Clifford said of his team’s massive offensive improvement. ``Definitely, our purpose of play is good, we’re making a bunch of shots and (Vucevic) is just – inside, outside, passing – he’s playing at an incredibly high level.’’
Vucevic – a strong candidate to be named the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Week on Monday – scored 17 of his 28 points in the second half. The Magic’s first player with consecutive 30-point games since 2015, Vucevic just missed making it three in a row and he just missed the third triple-double of his NBA career. He added 10 rebounds and nine assists.
``I’ve just been aggressive the last couple games, and with how we’ve been playing, it puts me in a lot of good positions to score and my teammates have been able to find me,’’ said Vucevic, who has averaged 31.3 points a game while making 35 of 57 shots and seven of 14 3-pointers over the last three games.
Gordon and Vucevic had plenty of help as Evan Fournier scored 19 points and Terrence Ross poured in seven of his 10 points in the fourth quarter.
Jonathan Isaac, who continues to show flashes of being the kind of transformational player that the Magic hoped for when they selected him No. 6 in the 2017 NBA Draft, played well in several areas on Sunday. Fresh off a career-best five-block night on Saturday, Isaac scored 16 points, grabbed four rebounds, handed out three assists and swatted a shot. His best sequence of the night came in the fourth when he stuffed a Tim Hardaway Jr. shot and then dunked with authority on the other end to boost the Magic’s lead to 116-104 with 5:28 to play.
``Definitely the games are slowing down for me and it’s getting easier to know when to cut and know when to do certain things,’’ Isaac said.
Ross, who had a game-winning 3-pointer earlier in the week against Philadelphia, missed nine of his first shots and five of his first six 3-point tries. However, he came alive in the fourth when Orlando desperately needed his production. With the Knicks within 100-97, Ross drilled a free-throw-line jumper and sank a 3-pointer from the left wing off a feed from reserve point guard Isaiah Briscoe. Later, Ross went high into the air to swat a Frank Ntilikina layup attempt.
Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 32 points and Trey Burke chipped in 31. Enes Kanter hurt the Magic with 21 points and 19 rebounds. New York had a 42-35 advantage on the glass.
Said Clifford: ``We won’t go where we need to go (in the playoffs) if our rebounding doesn’t get a lot better. In the second quarter, we got outworked with no physicality. It’ll never work if we don’t rebound.’’
Mario Hezonja, the No. 5 pick of the 2015 NBA Draft by the Magic, did not play in his first game back in Orlando after signing with the Knicks in the offseason. Hezonja, who has once again struggled with his shot, contracted food poisoning recently and was ill in the days leading up to Sunday.
The Magic got off to a dazzling start on Sunday and equaled some history in the process. Orlando hung 44 points on the Knicks in the first quarter – equaling the franchise record for the most points ever scored in a first quarter. Orlando hadn’t scored that many points in a first quarter since Feb. 8, 2008 when it did so against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Orlando made their first 10 shots of the first quarter and 17 of 25 in the period. Had they not missed three consecutive 3-point shots late in the first quarter, the Magic likely would have set a new record for points in an opening quarter.
``We’ve gotten better (offensively) and I think it’s the repetitions and the practice,’’ said Fournier, who had another six assists. ``The drills that we do (are helping) and we have trust in what Coach (Clifford) is telling us. It’s just growth and it’s positive.’’
Orlando was playing less than 24 hours after whipping LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers 130-117. In that game, Orlando notched a season-high in scoring with the 130 points and rode the offensive firepower of Vucevic (26 points) and Augustin (22 points) and the defensive grit of Jonathan Isaac (a career-best five blocks).
Also, Orlando was playing New York for a second time in a week. Last Sunday, the Magic drilled 17 3-pointers and drilled the Knicks by 26 points for their largest win at Madison Square Garden in the 30-year history of the franchise.
After completing their fourth back-to-back set of games of the season, the Magic will be off on Monday. Orlando will then host the East-leading Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night. Following that, the Magic will depart on Thanksgiving Day for a West Coast swing beginning Friday that will cover five games.
Up just one at the half after blowing much of an 18-point lead, Orlando was able to hang onto the lead throughout the third period, but it was a constant struggle because of the peskiness of the Knicks. Isaac played well off the bench and his stellar stretch late in the period allowed Orlando to take a 98-92 edge into the fourth period.
The Magic have been down this path before, getting off to an impressive 19-13 start in 2015-16 and racing out to a 6-2 opening last season before the bottom fell out of the offense. However, they are confident they can keep this run of torrid offense going because of how they are trusting one another, trusting the pass and trusting what Clifford is preaching about daily growth.
``As long as we keep getting better and playing the right way, the results are going to take care of themselves,’’ Fournier said. ``We just have to make sure that we respect the game and go from there.’’
Added Gordon, when asked if the Magic’s offensive success is sustainable: ``I don’t see why not. We’re going to continue to get better as the year goes along. What have we done? We’ve won some games. We’ve got a long way to go and we’ve got a lot more games to go. We’ve got to continue to play the way that we know how to play and not even worry about (the past).’’
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