Postgame Report: Magic vs. Flamengo

Vucevic, Gordon & Bamba flourish in preseason home opener
by John Denton

ORLANDO – New head coach Steve Clifford is a link to the Orlando Magic’s most recent glory days, working as an assistant coach for the squad’s 2009 and ‘10 teams that reached the NBA Finals and Eastern Conference Finals.

In addition to having elite-level talent, those Magic teams weren’t afraid to defy basketball convention and take risks with their personnel and style of play.

Taking a cue from those Magic teams that sometimes shot 3-pointers in record numbers and dared playing forwards Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu simultaneously, Clifford is eager to experiment with the present-day Orlando squad in ways that will allow it to potentially use centers Nikola Vucevic and Mohamed Bamba at the same time.

The Magic rolled out that ultra-big lineup featuring Vucevic and Bamba at times on Friday night and it produced extremely positive results in their 119-82 exhibition-game rout of Brazil’s Flamengo at the Amway Center. Orlando (1-1 in the preseason) never trailed and led by as much as 43 points in the fourth quarter.

``I thought we played well with Mo and myself out there, and maybe it can be something that’s good for us,’’ said Vucevic, who had 21 points and seven rebounds on Friday. ``Mo’s a smart player and I’m a smart player and when you have people who have a feel for the game, usually you just figure it out. It’ll probably take some time for us to really make it work well, but I think it’s something that can work for us. He can shoot and I can shoot; he can be inside and I can be inside and we can put it on the floor, too. It can put pressure on the other team and on the defensive end it gives us a lot of length. So far, it’s been really good – probably better than we thought it would be.’’

Vucevic is the Magic’s longest-tenured player, while Bamba is one of the franchise’s newest additions after being selected No. 6 in last June’s NBA Draft. Clifford, who worked previously for the Magic from 2007-12 and was hired in May as head coach, used Vucevic and Bamba together several times this week in practice. And that combination produced almost immediate results on Friday night.

Seconds after Bamba checked into the game and joined Vucevic along the Magic front line, the latter stuffed a shot at the rim. Both 7-footers played extremely well in the early going, combining with Aaron Gordon’s hustle and muscle, to list the Magic to a lead as large as 25 points in the first half and by 34 points in the third quarter. Clifford, who worked previously in Orlando under former Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy, said the pairing of the team’s two big men comes down to a simple strategy.

``My feeling is, again going all the way back to what Stan used to say: `You have to find ways to get your best players on the floor,’ and (Vucevic and Bamba) are two of our best players,’’ said Clifford, who noted the pairing will obviously face stiffer tests against other NBA talent. ``Two months from now, as Mo learns, (it might work better then), but you just don’t wait until then. If we’re going to become the team that we can become, (Bamba’s) progress is part of that. So, you can’t get into December and say, `(Bamba) is playing well, but two of our best players are at the same position’ and then start it from there. We may as well start it now and make it a part of what we do.’’

Making his Amway Center debut on Friday, the 20-year-old Bamba scored 12 points, grabbed nine rebounds, blocked four shots and contributed one of the best highlights of the night in the second quarter. All in one motion, Bamba used every bit of 7-foot, 10-inch wingspan to rebound a missed 3-point shot and jam the ball through the rim for a thunderous dunk. Showing off vast versatility as a player, Bamba also drilled two 3-point shots, giving him four makes in as many attempts in two preseason games.

``I don’t know, there must be something wrong with me,’’ Bamba said of his lack of nerves while making his Amway Center debut. ``It felt really good being in front of the home crowd. There were a lot of resilient people out there supporting Flamengo, but it felt good playing here.’’

Bamba had plenty of help as Aaron Gordon impressively scored 29 points on 10-of-12 shooting with six free throws, three 3-pointers and nearly twice as many dunks. Vucevic also played well as the Magic carved up Flamengo with 54.3 percent shooting and 10 3-pointers.

``I was just looking to be aggressive,’’ Gordon said. ``I just want to get everybody involved and get everybody going. I don’t really care about points. I’ll accept them as they come, but how many I score doesn’t matter as long as we get the (win).’’

Magic rookie and Florida State University product Braian Angola-Rodas made his NBA debut in the fourth quarter. He is the first Colombian-born player to reach the NBA level, and in Flamengo, he was facing a team from his native South America. Angola-Rodas, who drilled two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, is on an Exhibit-10 contract, meaning he’ll likely spend much of this season in the G League while playing for the Lakeland Magic.

Magic rookie Melvin Frazier Jr., a second-round pick in last summer’s NBA Draft, scored 11 points and grabbed three rebounds in his first game on the Amway Center parquet floor.

Flamengo, which featured former NBA players and Brazilian natives Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa, struggled slowing down Gordon’s athleticism and contending the length of Vucevic and Bamba. The Rio de Janeiro-based squad trailed by as much as 34 points in the third quarter and made only 31 percent of its shots in the game. Varejao, who was originally selected by the Magic with the 30thpick of the 2004 NBA Draft, had 14 points and 12 rebounds for the visitors.

Friday’s game was the third-ever meeting between the Magic and Flamengo. Orlando also won at the Amway Center in 2014 and in Rio in 2015.

Orlando was without forward Jonathan Isaac (sprained ankle), guard Terrence Ross (sore foot) and center Timofey Mozgov (dislocated finger) on Friday. All three injuries are considered minor and the Magic are hopeful that all three can return to the practice floor later in the weekend.

After playing twice this week and practicing four times, the Magic will get a much-needed day off on Saturday. The team will return to the practice floor on Sunday before flying to Miami to face the Heat on Monday in South Florida. The Magic will be back at the Amway Center on Wednesday when they host the Memphis Grizzlies.

Brazilians make up a big enough chunk of Orlando’s estimated 68 million visitors a year to rank second behind only Canada in sending tourists to Central Florida. Hundreds of Brazilian fans, dressed in Flamengo’s black and red jerseys, packed the Amway Center on Friday night. Not only did they sing songs during lulls in the game, they also roared with applause following big plays by the visiting team.

Clifford raved on Thursday and Friday morning about the intensity and focus that his team brought to their practice and shootaround sessions, and those traits carried over to the start of Friday’s game. The Magic moved the ball well and made better than 60 percent of their shots in the first 15 minutes, allowing them to build a halftime lead of 67-43.

Gordon, who has shown signs in training camp of even more progression as a player following last year’s breakout season, could do no wrong in the opening 24 minutes. He made seven of his first eight shots, including three 3-pointers, for 20 first-half points. Gordon was a terror in transition, repeatedly getting to the rim for spectacular finishes. He saved his best highlights for the third quarter, when he dunked off a D.J. Augustin alley-oop feed and when he rammed the ball in with former NBA standout Anderson Varejao refusing to even jump.

While Vucevic was scoring 15 points in the first half, Bamba was filling the box score in his first-ever game at the Amway Center. He confidently drilled a 19-foot jumper for his first points of the night and he showed no hesitation in sinking a straight-on 3-pointer in the second quarter. By halftime, Bamba filled the box score with nine points, five rebounds, one block and one assist in nearly 11 minutes.

``It comes from Coach Clifford and it comes from the offense that we’re running because it has a lot of freedom and a lot of space,’’ Bamba said of the reasons behind his assertiveness thus far. ``I’m just trying to utilize myself in the best way for team success. I’m very comfortable (with his shot), but it’s not something that came overnight. It’s something that I worked at to be this comfortable.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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