PHOENIX – While Orlando Magic veteran Terrence Ross agrees with a recent critique by head coach Steve Clifford that the squad needs to play with more physicality, the guard also stressed on Friday that in no way does this team lack toughness.
Ross, a key figure in the Magic’s steady start thus far with his firepower off the bench, has seen his squad display toughness time and again while winning in hostile road venues such as Boston, San Antonio and Los Angeles. Also, the Magic have shown resiliency time and again in responding to some of their worst losses of the season with some of their biggest victories.
That kind of toughness was on display again on Friday as the road-weary Magic fought throughout and got big performances all night from Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, D.J. Augustin and Aaron Gordon in a 99-85 defeat of the shorthanded Phoenix Suns.
``This was good, especially after a loss, bouncing back. We came out here tonight and did what we had to do,’’ said Ross, who had another 21 points off the Magic bench, including a critical six-point stretch in the fourth quarter that iced the victory. ``We’re resilient and we’re always going to try and play the right way regardless of what happened the previous game, win or lose. We’re trying to build consistency in that area and think we’re doing a good job with it.’’
The victory allowed Orlando (11-12) to close out one of its longest road trips of the season with a 2-3 mark. The trip, of course, could have been better had the Magic not let a couple of second-half leads slip away. The pesky Suns (4-18) made a couple of spirited runs at Orlando in Friday’s second half, but it held firm and got a much-needed victory.
``Tonight was about us knowing that this is an important game for us and with the last one before you go home, it can always be tricky because your mind can already be home. But we did a good job,’’ said Vucevic, who continued to be a force in the paint by pouring in 25 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. ``It was a good way for us to finish this trip and now we can go home and get some rest and get ready for the next week.’’
Augustin carried the Magic for a long stretch in the fourth quarter and finished with 16 points and six assists. Gordon, who returned following 1 1/2-game layoff because of a back injury, had 18 points and six rebounds in 34 minutes.
``I wasn’t going to play this morning when I woke up and wasn’t feeling right, but I got into the training room and worked on it,’’ said Gordon, who made his first three shots and scored eight points in the opening minutes to prove his readiness. ``Praise my training staff. They did a great job. The back loosened up enough for me to be able to go.’’
The Magic had a perfect storm of events transpire in their favor about an hour prior to tipoff on Friday. Not only did Orlando find out that Gordon (back stiffness) and Jonathon Simmons would be able to play, but it also learned that Phoenix standouts Devin Booker (24.5 ppg.) and T.J. Warren (17.7 ppg.) would miss the game with toe and ankle injuries, respectively.
Gordon took advantage of Warren being out and punished small forward Trevor Ariza on the low block. He made eight of 12 shots even though his health was far from 100 percent.
``Slow and winded, but I’m fine,’’ he said.
On Friday, the Magic shot 47.6 percent from the floor despite making just eight of 26 3-point shots. Orlando’s defense held Phoenix to 40.5 percent shooting. Up just four heading into the fourth period, the Magic outscored the Suns 24-14 in the final 12 minutes.
Orlando was playing just two nights after suffering a second heart-breaking loss on their lengthy road trip. The Magic started the trip with a bad loss in Denver and a thrilling defeat of LeBron James and the Lakers in Los Angeles. However, pain and suffering followed as they couldn’t hold an 18-point lead in a loss to the Golden State Warriors and surrendered an 11-point lead in losing to Portland on Wednesday.
``We could have gotten a couple of more and we’ve worried about the ones that we lost, especially the ones that were close, and those hurt,’’ Ross said. ``But you always want to make sure that you end these long trips on a positive note and we did that tonight.’’
Their five-game, nine-night road trip finally complete, the Magic headed home soon after the game for a few days of rest. The team was scheduled to arrive back into Central Florida at just after 4 a.m. on Saturday morning and will take that day off.
``If you look at this trip, 3-2 would have been terrific, but the bigger thing is that it’s a 9-7 month against very good competition,’’ Magic head coach Steve Clifford said. ``And we’ve gotten a lot better. So, we’ll take (Saturday) off. These next couple of weeks don’t get much easier, but we’re in a good place right now.’’
Orlando will practice on Sunday and Monday before facing the rival Heat in Miami on Tuesday. The Magic will finally return to the Amway Center on Wednesday when they host the surging Denver Nuggets.
The game was the first in the NBA for longtime rivals Mo Bamba and DeAndre Ayton. The Phoenix center, the No. 1 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, had 19 points and six rebounds in 32 minutes. Bamba, the No. 6 pick of the draft, was occasionally matched up against the player he faced all throughout high school and AAU games. He had two points and five rebounds in 16 minutes.
Booker’s absence freed up more playing time for Phoenix veteran guard Jamal Crawford, who has feasted on the Magic with his shooting for years. The 19-year veteran once again tortured Orlando on Friday, scoring 18 points in 31 minutes.
Up three at the half, the Magic pushed their lead to as much as 12 points in the third period. However, just as Orlando seemed poised to break the game open Crawford almost single-handedly kept the Suns in the game. He scored the final seven points of the third period, meaning the Magic had just a 75-71 advantage going into the fourth quarter. Crawford had 18 points three 3-pointers in the game’s first three quarters.
Orlando led 51-48 at the half, but it didn’t come without some struggles. The Magic went nearly five minutes without a field goal late in the first quarter, allowing the Suns to lead by as much as eight points.
However, the Magic’s sputtering offense got on track in the second quarter to allow them to retake the lead. An Orlando team that shot 34.8 percent in the first quarter drilled 11 of 17 shots (64.7 percent) and three of six 3-pointers (50 percent) in the second period.
Ross, Orlando’s best reserve all season, energized the offense in the first half and scored 13 points in 14 minutes. He made four of six shots, two threes and three of five free throws in the first 24 minutes.
``He’s been really great for us, especially the last 15 games or so after he got into the rhythm after not playing in so long (last season),’’ Vucevic said of Ross. ``Off the bench for us, he’s been huge. Tonight, he missed some shots early on, but he kept it up and then he had that six-point run by himself.’’
Now, Clifford said the Magic must prove that they can handle success going forward to keep their season going in the direction it’s been headed of late. Playing with more toughness, as Orlando did once again on Friday, has to help their chances of doing that.
``To me, that’s what plays out,’’ Clifford said when asked if the Magic can continue to gut their way through difficult games. ``That’s the difference between average teams, bad teams, great teams and good teams. It ends up being your approach – beign able to handle success and disappointment.’’
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