By John Denton Feb. 5, 2018
MIAMI – When the Orlando Magic’s recent stretch of stellar basketball abruptly stopped over the weekend in a lackluster loss, head coach Frank Vogel spoke pointedly to his team about mental discipline and togetherness in tough times.
Sure, the Magic have been beset by a rash of injuries for weeks and they are likely out of the playoff chase, but Vogel mixed some inspirational and instructional words in between the ones not so repeatable.
``We’re trying to raise the standard around here, quite frankly,’’ Vogel said prior to Monday’s game in Miami. ``That was one of our messages after the Washington game. We had been playing at a high level – and sure, we’ve got a lot of guys out (injured) – but I felt like we gave in in the Washington game. We can’t give in to our circumstances and that’s not what we want we want to be about.’’
The Magic got the message on Monday, playing with a noticeable edge in overwhelming the rival Miami Heat most of the night. Orlando built a lead as large as 14 points in the fourth quarter, squandered every bit of it before collecting itself late. When guard Jonathon Simmons converted a thunderous dunk and center Bismack Biyombo had a key block in the final seconds, the Magic emerged with a stirring 111-109 beating of the Heat at American Airlines Arena.
``I think we responded very well. Saturday was just not a good game for us, so everybody was excited to play, get back on the court and get that aggression out,’’ said Simmons, who scored 10 of his 16 points in the second half. ``Definitely that was a good message from Coach (Vogel) and I think all of our guys received it the right way.’’
Orlando (16-36) led the Heat (29-25) 107-93 with 8:18 to play before the Heat rallied with a 16-2 burst to tie the game at 109. Simmons then drove hard to his right and jammed the ball with 1:31 remaining to put the Magic back into the lead.
After the two teams traded turnovers, Miami guard Tyler Johnson scooped up a loose ball and took a short shot in the lane that was swatted out of the air by Biyombo. Officials ruled there was a goal-tending on the play, but immediately went to video monitors for a replay review of the play. After further review, the goal-tending call was reversed and the Heat got the ball back as result of the stoppage with 1.8 seconds remaining. Biyombo tipped the subsequent in-bounds pass, allowing the Magic to escape with a thrilling, two-point victory.
``I was really happy for our guys because they competed their tails off and played a much more physical brand of basketball than we did last game – which is what I challenged them to do – and we were able to hang on and get the win,’’ Vogel said. ``They’re competing. All we preach are the defensive habits. They’re not always there, but the guys were locked in, for sure.’’
Mario Hezonja started at power forward in place of Gordon and had 20 points and four 3-pointers. Evan Fournier (13 points) and Elfrid Payton (10 points and seven assists) teamed with Simmons (six-of-nine shooting and two 3-pointers) and also played well.
D.J. Augustin (16 points and three 3-pointers) and Marreese Speights (12 points and two 3-pointers) got hot in the fourth quarter and set the stage for the big victory. They combined for 14 points and four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter alone.
``Guys are shooting with confidence right now because everybody is getting the opportunity and getting to touch the ball,’’ said Augustin, one of Orlando’s best players for weeks now. ``We’ve just got to keep playing like that. We’ve been stressing play like this all season and now it’s starting to click.’’
Orlando shot 48.8 percent from the floor and drilled 13 of 30 3-pointers. Miami connected on just three of 23 threes and was limited to just 43 percent shooting. Josh Richardson scored 20 points, while Hassan White had 19 points and 14 boards. Rookie Bam Adebayo chipped in 18 points and 10 rebounds off the bench.
All of Orlando’s effort might have been for naught had Biyombo’s blocked shot with 2.8 seconds remaining been ruled a goal-tend. Biyombo said the outcome of the play was never in doubt to him.
``I know when it’s a goal tend and when it’s not – especially when it’s a critical moment – and that wasn’t a goal tend,’’ said Biyombo who had nine points, five rebounds and two blocked shots. ``That was a great win for us. We started slow, but we picked up the pace and closed out the game.’’
The stellar shooting and aggressive play allowed Orlando to topple yet another team in the playoff chase. In recent weeks, Orlando has beaten Boston, Minnesota, Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers, while pushing Cleveland, Houston, Washington and Indiana to the brink in narrow losses.
Miami narrowly missed the playoffs last season, in part because of three losses to the Magic. If the Heat are on the outside looking in again this season, they could blame their two defeats against Orlando. Orlando won the season-opener at the Amway Center, but dropped the middle two games in the series when the Heat rallied in the second half each time. Combined with last season’s 3-1 mark, Orlando has won five of the last eight games against Miami.
Already without Nikola Vucevic (fractured hand), Terrence Ross (knee sprain) and Jonathan Isaac (ankle rehab), Orlando didn’t have standout power forward Aaron Gordon for a fourth straight game because of a strained left hip flexor. That injury will keep him out again on Tuesday and it also caused him to withdraw from the Feb. 17 NBA Slam Dunk contest on Monday.
The Magic will be back in action on Tuesday when they host LeBron James and the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers. Orlando played at home last week on the second night of a back-to-back and drilled 18 3-pointers to rout the Los Angeles Lakers. The only other time this season that Orlando hit 18 3-pointers in a game came on Oct. 21 when it won in Cleveland.
Up by six as they headed into the fourth quarter after outplaying the Heat all throughout the second and third periods, the Magic put on a jaw-dropping shooting display that quieted the crowd at American Airlines Arena. The Magic opened the fourth quarter by making five of their first seven shots – four of them being 3-pointers by Augustin and Speights – to extend the lead to 107-93.
``We just played together,’’ said Augustin, who made six of 11 shots and three of six 3-point tries. ``That second unit, we come in and try to bring energy, share the ball and play defense and that’s what we did tonight.’’
Red-hot at the end of the first half, the Magic picked up in the third quarter where they left off prior to halftime. Orlando pushed the ball in transition and moved the ball side to side to get good shots, allowing it to make 12 of 22 shots and four 3-pointers in the third period. Hezonja had 20 points by the start of the fourth quarter when the Magic held a somewhat surprising 93-87 lead.
``It was tough on Saturday against Washington because they were out-bumping us and being more physical than us. But we responded to Frank’s message and that’s how we got this (win),’’ Hezonja said. ``I’m not paying too much attention to my game because I know who I am and what I can do. As long as we are winning, I’m happy that I can help my teammates.’’
Once down as much as 12 points in the first quarter and seemingly stuck in a malaise, Orlando got a big lift from the bench midway through the second quarter and the starters closed the half with a 10-2 surge. That strong play allowed the Magic to hit the locker room at the half within 60-59 of the Heat.
Miami also played a major role in Orlando being close at halftime. The Heat missed all 12 of their 3-point shots and misfired on eight free throws in the game’s first 24 minutes. The Magic were whistled 17 first-half fouls, but the Heat were mostly unable to take advantage. Also, they shot just 43.5 percent in the opening half.
Orlando likely wouldn’t have been close at all without the aggressiveness of Hezonja, who got the start at power forward in place of Gordon. He had 11 points in the first quarter alone by drilling a 3-pointer and being aggressive off the dribble.
Down 35-26 at the end of the first quarter, the Magic rode some more stellar play from Augustin (eight points and three assists), Wes Iwundu (five points and three rebounds), Shelvin Mack (four points) and Speights (four points) to apply pressure to the Heat. Orlando’s bench combined for 25 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in the first half.
Payton keyed the 10-2 Magic stretch to close the second quarter by drilling two free throws and twice dishing to Simmons for 3-pointers.
All throughout the second half, the Magic were the tougher team, allowing them to further distance themselves from a poor performance on Saturday. They were tougher defensively against Whiteside (four points after halftime), they were tougher when they had to have a basket and got the ball into the hands of Simmons and they were tougher in getting a strong stand defensively on the final possession of the night.
``I like that we played a more physical brand of basketball,’’ Vogel said. ``It sort of resulted in 28 free throws in the first half and we had to tell them to play physical without marching the other team to the line so much. But we definitely played tougher.’’
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