MEXICO CITY – Time and again on Thursday, both offensively and defensively, center Nikola Vucevic was there when his Orlando Magic needed him most in the face of adversity.
Ultimately, the 7-footer who has led the franchise in scoring and rebounding most of what is looking like his finest season as a pro did everything in his power to give the Magic a much-needed a victory to break a three-game losing streak.
Vucevic drilled a tiebreaking shot with 28.1 seconds left to play and scored 10 of his game-high 26 points in the fourth quarter as the Magic rallied late to defeat the Chicago Bulls 97-91 at Mexico City’s Arena Ciudad de Mexico.
On what proved to be the game-winner, Magic coach Steve Clifford drew up two-man action with guard Evan Fournier and Vucevic and they worked the play to perfection. Fournier drove hard into the heart of the lane to collapse the defense and found Vucevic for the mid-range winner.
``That two-man game, we did it a lot in the past at the end of game and it was a great play drawn up by Coach Cliff,’’ said Vucevic, who added 10 rebounds and two steals and made 11 of his 21 shots. ``It gave us a clear shot. That play puts a lot of pressure on the defense because of my ability to roll and pop and Evan’s ability to get to the rim or (hit) the pull-up jumper. They both went with him and I was able to pop to the mid-range. I was glad I was able to make that shot because I missed a lot of easy ones throughout the game.’’
Said Fournier: ``It was a good play and it was a play that we’ve done for, I don’t know, five years. It was just money. Like I just knew he wasn’t going to miss.’’
Vucevic’s shot allowed Orlando (13-15) to break a three-game losing streak and avoid losing to slumping Chicago (6-23). Orlando shot just 41.5 percent and turned the ball over 16 times – errors that led to 18 points for the Bulls. But, in the end, the Magic found a way to win thanks to big plays from D.J. Augustin (15 points and seven rebounds), Fournier (10 points and four assists) and Vucevic.
Orlando needed a big play defensively just to get to the point where Vucevic could win it with his jumper. Augustin wisely stepped in front of Kris Dunn’s drive and drew a change that returned the ball back to the Magic with 33 seconds to play.
``To me, outside of the (Vucevic) jumper, that was the biggest play of the game,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``It was a well-designed play on (the Bulls’) part, but D.J. made a terrific play.’’
Orlando has notched some of its best victories of the season on the road, winning in San Antonio, Boston, Miami and Los Angeles (against the Lakers). Though the Magic were officially designated the ``home’’ team, it felt like they were in hostile territory much of the night because of the thousands of Bulls fans that filled the sellout crowd of 20,021.
``We were in a neutral site and the altitude made a big difference. We could have gone out there and made all kinds of excuses, but we went out there and got a big victory,’’ said Magic guard Terrence Ross, who had eight points. ``For sure, that felt like a road game. I think it’s just our resiliency. We fight, we don’t give up easily and when we come out ready to play, we’re a hard team to beat.’’
Orlando wiped out an early deficit and threatened to break the game open by twice surging ahead by as many as 11 points. However, the Bulls ripped off 12 points early in the fourth period and led by as much as four points with 7:30 to play.
However, Vucevic was there again and again for the Magic, scoring 10 fourth-quarter points to lift the Magic to the much-needed victory. He had a 3-pointer with 5:05 to play that put Orlando up 86-83 and his hook knotted the game at 88. His deep fade-away basket with 1:14 to play gave Orlando a 91-88 lead. And, even after the Bulls battled back and got the game tied, Vucevic was there again for the game-winner.
``You can just tell now by the way (foes)are defending him – they’re double-teaming him and focusing on him,’’ Augustin said of the center he feels is long overdue to make an NBA all-star game. ``Vooch is a very underrated player and we want to just keep winning so that he can get the recognition that he deserves.’’
Zach LaVine scored 23 points for the Bulls, while Bobby Portis had 16 off the bench. Chicago shot 47.9 percent from the floor and drilled 10 3-pointers, but the Magic’s defense forced it into 18 turnovers.
Orlando came into the game having dropped its last three games – two of them in lopsided fashion. Following Monday’s 101-76 in Dallas, Orlando had two days to rest and prepare for Thursday’s game in Mexico City. Arriving early also helped the Magic better acclimate themselves with Mexico City’s elevated altitude.
``It was very important to get this one and it builds confidence going forward,’’ said Jonathon Simmons, who had eight points, four rebounds and two steals. ``We were able to make some plays at the end to pull it out. It definitely felt like a road game. The only reason it looked like a home game was the possession board (inside the arena).’’
All of its regular rotation players available, Orlando changed its starting lineup yet again on Thursday night. Clifford re-inserted guard Fournier back into the lineup following his one-game absence because of a personal matter. Clifford also paired forwards Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac in the starting lineup along with Vucevic and Augustin. That group opened the first eight games of the season, going 2-6, but they were much better on Thursday following a slow start to the night.
``I think that group can be terrific defensively,’’ Clifford said. ``It’s good, in my opinion, to start with a defensively balanced lineup. What it does – I know (nobody) does this, but this is like three to four hours of my day studying lineups – but we’re trying to find a way to play well for 48 minutes. By starting them, I think it gives us a better chance to get to lineups where we can play well for 48 minutes and we don’t have (bad) stretches.’’
Wearing shooting shirts that read `El Magic,’ Orlando is officially the ``home’’ team of the NBA Mexico City Games 2018 and will play again at Arena Ciudad de Mexico on Saturday against the Utah Jazz. Those will be the 27thand 28thNBA games ever played in Mexico City and the eighth and ninth of the regular season. Playing two games in Mexico this season wouldn’t have been possible without the cooperation of the Magic, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said on Thursday.
``They’re playing two games here in Mexico City and gave up two home dates in Orlando, so Orlando Magic thank you so much for being so supportive of the NBA in Mexico,’’ Silver said of the franchise that also played in Mexico City in 2012.
Up five at the half, Orlando pushed its lead to as much as eight in the third period before the Bulls made a run back into it. Still, the Magic held firm and led 77-71 heading into the final 12 minutes.
Clifford hoped that the new lineup would allow the Magic to avoid falling in a big first-half deficit – as has been the case in the two previous games. Things didn’t go particularly well in the early going, but Orlando did get contributions from several spots on the roster and led 51-46 at intermission.
Vucevic, who uncharacteristically struggled in Monday’s loss in Dallas, was in attack mode from the start against Robin Lopez – a nemesis of his since their time playing collegiately in the Pac-10. Vucevic made six of his first 11 shots and his 3-pointer late in the second period gave Orlando its biggest lead of the first half at 47-36. Vucevic had 13 first-half points.
In the end, Vucevic was there again to help his Magic gut out a much-needed victory. Playing some of the best basketball of his eight-year NBA career, Vucevic has been able to keep the Magic afloat this season with plenty of nights like Thursday. Afterward, he deflected the credit to the others around him and stressed that it’s winning that is most important to him.
``I think since Coach (Clifford) came in, he’s done a great job of putting me in positions on the court,’’ Vucevic said. ``The way we play, I get a lot of rolls and a lot of pops. The way we play this year, really fits my game to show my skill set. I just want to stay aggressive. Most importantly, me playing well helps the team win. When you don’t win it doesn’t mean as much. We’ve been able to play better this season and hopefully we can keep it up.’’
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