By John Denton Jan. 16, 2018
ORLANDO – Even though their sagging record – one pocked with multiple long losing streaks – says otherwise, the Orlando Magic have insisted all throughout this season that they have the talent and toughness to not only compete, but beat some of the best teams in the NBA.
On Tuesday night, as they were facing a star-studded Minnesota team that came in as hot as any other squad in the league, the Magic rode stellar efforts from veterans Evan Fournier, D.J. Augustin and Bismack Biyombo and got a surprising lift from rookie Khem Birch in proving their point about their legitimacy.
Orlando got a somewhat strange spark from an Arron Afflalo fight early in the night and then battered the Timberwolves with the 3-point shooting of Fournier and Augustin and the shot-blocking of Biyombo and Birch in a 108-102 victory at the Amway Center.
This is why they play the games: Orlando (13-31) came in riding a seven-game losing streak and hadn’t won in 2018, while Minnesota (29-17) had surged to third in the rugged Western Conference thanks to an impressive five-game winning streak. On this night, however, Orlando took control of the game midway through the fourth quarter and never relinquished it thanks to a career-best 32 points and six 3-pointers from Fournier and a combined 22 points, 26 rebounds and nine blocked shots from Biyombo and Birch.
``We have played some games that we were supposed to win, and we lost. And there were games that we were supposed to lose, and we have won them,’’ marveled Biyombo, who muscled his way to 10 points, 16 rebounds and five blocked shots. ``We have been playing a lot of good basketball the last two weeks, but we’ve been losing games.
``Are we better than the record says? We all know that (to be true), but the truth of the matter is we’ve got to face the reality,’’ Biyombo added. ``The result is what it is, but we’ve got to find a way to keep pulling out these kinds of wins and who knows what could happen.’’
Who knew a performance like the one Birch authored could happen? Birch, a 25-year-old rookie who had to play overseas prior to making it in the NBA, had 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots against a Minnesota frontline that featured Karl-Anthony Towns (15 points and 12 rebounds), Taj Gibson (18 points) and Andrew Wiggins (nine points). In Birch’s 19 minutes on the floor, the Magic were a plus-13 on the scoreboard – a total matched on Tuesday only by Augustin.
``I didn’t want to get taken out early,’’ said Birch, whose opportunity came along only because veteran big man Marreese Speights was away from the team due to a personal matter. ``When I go out there, I just play as hard as I can. It’s hard to take out a player that plays hard. That’s what I did.’’
Did he ever? Early in the night, he spiked a Towns shot out of bounds the way a volleyball player might hit a ball. And during the Magic’s game-turning 14-4 run – one that took them from being down 83-80 to up 94-87 – Birch had a gritty dunk in traffic off a nifty feed from Augustin.
Afterward, the 6-foot-9, 220-pound Birch – who has been assigned to the Magic’s G League affiliate in Lakeland six times this season and has been recalled to the NBA seven times – received high praise from head coach Frank Vogel.
``From the day that day that Khem Birch stepped into our building and had his first training-camp practice I knew he was ready for this,’’ Vogel raved. ``He’s a NBA player and not a G League player, but he’s been staying sharp down there and learning and developing. He’s a terrific player and he really plays that role well of being a rolling big, a shot-blocker and an offensive rebounding crasher. It was no surprise that he had a strong performance tonight and I’m sure we will see that going forward.’’
What Vogel would also like to see going forward was the way the Magic – statistically the NBA’s worst rebounding team – whipped the Timberwolves on the glass. The Magic held a 51-37 edge on the glass, helped by their 15 offensive boards to keep possessions alive.
Said Vogel: ``It’s nice to see my message starting to be received. I’ve talked about it incessantly. Poor rebounding has been a factor in some of our losses and it’s been frustrating. … We were really good tonight.’’
As happy as Vogel was, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler (28 points) was as frustrated. Afterward, he unloaded verbally on his teammates, saying: ``We need to humble our damn selves. I am glad we (expletive) lost, coming in here on our high horse and thinking we are a really good team and we haven’t done anything yet. Good for us, man. (The Magic) played better than us. They played harder than us. They did everything right and we didn’t play the way we were supposed to. They whooped our butts.’’
Afflalo and Minnesota’s Nemanja Bjelica were ejected in the second quarter for a brief, but wild fight. The two players were hit with technical fouls just seconds into the second quarter when they collided at the rim and Afflalo’s hand smacked across Bjelica’s face and they exchanged words. Minutes later, as Bjelica was attempting to crash the lane for a rebound, Afflalo chucked him twice in an attempt to box out. Afflalo then swung wildly with his right fist and hit the Timberwolves’ forward in the neck and the side of his head. The much-bigger Bjelica then put Afflalo in a headlock and hit the Magic forward in his back with another swing. Augustin, who would save the Magic later by scoring 11 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter, rushed to the aid of his teammate.
``I was waiting for the outlet pass and when I turned around he already had Arron in the headlock, so my natural reaction was to just go and help my teammate,’’ added Augstin, who drilled six of nine shots, two of three 3-pointers and four of five free throws and finished the game in place of starter Elfrid Payton (six points, four rebounds and three assists).
Orlando will most likely be without Afflalo – who is almost sure to receive a suspension from the NBA – when it plays the Cavaliers in Cleveland on Thursday night. The Magic came into Tuesday tied with Toronto and San Antonio for the most road game with 24. They will play in Cleveland (Thursday night) and in Boston (Sunday afternoon) on the upcoming road trip.
Down 83-80 early in the fourth period and looking like they were about to let the game slip away from them, the Magic authored a stirring run keyed by Augustin and Mario Hejonja. Augustin had a circus shot from behind the backboard and over Gibson’s outstretched arm, while Hezonja converted a thunderous dunk to put Orlando on top, 84-83. Following a Fournier 3-pointer and a Birch dunk, Augustin capped a 14-4 burst with another 3-pointer that sent the Wolves scurrying into a timeout.
Like his teammates, Augustin feels the Magic should be much better than their record and he is still dumbfounded by the 4-27 stretch that soured the season following a promising 8-4 start.
``Nobody likes losing, we all have pride, we all work hard, we’re all good players and we’re a good team,’’ Augustin said. ``It sucks what our record is, but we’ve got to keep playing hard, keep pushing and let it be what it is at the end of the season.’’
Aaron Gordon chipped in 14 points and seven rebounds, while Hezonja had 10 points and two 3-pointers. Orlando shot 44.4 percent and hit 11 of 31 3-pointers, while Minnesota made just 43.9 percent of its shots. Orlando’s defense, a point of emphasis the past two days of practice, surrendered just seven 3-pointers and only nine free throws.
Fournier was brilliant throughout the game and he repeatedly torched the lumbering Timberwolves with 3-pointers off the fast break. The Magic were able to stay close in the third period thanks to the hot shooting from the veteran guard. He had 15 points and three 3-pointers in the third period alone to help the Magic trim the score to 75-73 heading into the fourth period.
Fournier’s final 3-pointer of the game came during the tide-turning 14-4 burst in the guts of the fourth quarter. Speaking of guts, Fournier said the Magic showed plenty of them on Tuesday night and won a game that showed what the Magic could be capable of the rest of the way this season.
``We have good players and when you look at the roster, you don’t (think), `Oh, they should only have 13 wins,’’’ said Fournier, who bested his previous career high of 30 points. ``The reality (of the record) is different, but when we play like this – we play hard, with enthusiasm and with a purpose, it makes a huge difference. We have to keep playing like this. We have about 40 games left and we have to try and fight. Just try and compete.’’
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