Postgame Report: Magic vs. Celtics (1/31/16)

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By John Denton

Jan. 31, 2016

ORLANDO – An Orlando Magic team desperate for a victory in the worst sort of way finally found one Sunday night in, quite possibly, the best manner imaginable.

They played hard from start to finish. They had a purpose and a passion about them. They made one big shot after another in a tense second half – excluding a few free throw misses down the stretch. And, most importantly, they hung tough late against one of the NBA’s hottest teams.

Playing as if their season was on the line Sunday night, the Magic finally broke out of the throes of an eight-game losing streak by putting on a shooting show in a 119-114 defeat of the red-hot Boston Celtics.

``We needed any kind of win, and to get down and come back like we did after this rough stretch that we’ve had, it’s great for our confidence,’’ said center Nikola Vucevic, who sealed the victory with two clutch free throws with 12.5 seconds remaining after the Magic struggled to close out the game. ``We needed one like this and I’m glad that we played all the way and made that push to win a game.’’

Orlando (21-25) won for the first time since Jan. 8 by making 53.7 percent of its shots and drilling 10 3-pointers – much to the delight of a sellout crowd of 18,846 at the Amway Center.

``It was good and I thought we looked more like ourselves,’’ said Magic coach Scott Skiles, who earlier in the day took blame for the team’s recent slump, but angrily challenged the squad during a timeout following a slow start to the second half. ``We got behind by 13, but from that point on we hustled. When we scramble and hustle and play hard usually good things happen for us.’’

Using a formula for success from early in the season by moving the ball well to get several players involved, Orlando dominated the second half of the game, outscoring Boston 72-60 after intermission. The Magic didn’t lead for the first time in the game until late in the third quarter, but they ultimately ballooned their advantage out to as much as 11 points in the fourth period.

Guard Evan Fournier, who lamented how Orlando could have such a ``great’’ December and a ``horrible’’ January earlier in the day, scored 24 points and made four 3-pointers. His 3-pointer with 5:27 to play gave Orlando a 96-95 lead that it would not surrender the rest of the game.

``It was a great win, but we should have closed it out better. They almost came back and it seems like we like it when it’s hard,’’ Fournier said.

Prized rookie Mario Hezonja, who has increasingly earned more meaningful minutes, scored a career-best 17 points in 33 minutes off the bench. Second-year forward Aaron Gordon was equally impressive, tying his career- high in scoring with 19 points and setting a new career-best mark on the glass with 14 rebounds.

``I think we really got back to our foundation of being disciplined on defense and deliberate with our movements and coverages,’’ said Gordon, who had a key chase-down block of an Avery Bradley 3-pointer with 1:57 to play and Orlando up 106-97. ``This is just a testament to how hard this team has been working and we needed to continue to work.’’

Vucevic also had a double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds, while Tobias Harris and Victor Oladipo chipped in 16 and 11 points, respectively.

The only negative was Orlando’s shaky shooting from the free throw line – a place it has gotten to infrequently this season. The Magic made just 11 of their first 19 free throws of the fourth quarter, allowing the Celtics to cut an 11-point deficit to 117-114 with 14 seconds to play. However, Vucevic ended the threat with two clutch free throws with 12.5 seconds remaining.

Down seven points at intermission following a shaky start defensively, the Magic started slowly in the third quarter and fell behind 67-54 when Skiles called a timeout and angrily challenged the squad for some fight. Skiles said earlier in the day that he would hold the team more accountable for lapses and he did just that during a fiery timeout.

``He challenged us, be basically just challenged us to rise to the occasion,’’ Gordon said. ``It wasn’t anything that he could (draw up) with Xs and Os. There was nothing he could write on the white board; it was just whether we had heart or not. We picked it up.’’

From there, the Magic played with tremendous confidence in the second half to gut out the victory. Orlando outscored the Celtics 34-27 in the third period to get the game tied. It then made 11 of its first 19 shots of the fourth – including three 3-pointers – to pull away from a Celtics team that had won five games in a row and eight of the last 10.

Boston (27-22) got 23 points and five 3-pointers from all-star guard Isaiah Thomas, while Avery Bradley drilled three more 3-pointers and scored 20 points. Boston also got 19 points from reserve guard Marcus Smart and it made 16 threes against a Magic defense that was forced to help and scramble all night.

Boston’s 46 3-point attempts were the third-most in NBA history. The 70 combined 3-point attempts by Orlando and Boston set a new Magic franchise record for two teams, breaking the previous record of 67 (set twice before in 2011).

The Magic and Celtics were playing for the third time this season and for the second time in three nights. The Magic routed the Celtics 110-91 in Orlando on Nov. 29, but Boston returned the favor at TD Garden on Friday night to the tune of 113-94. The two teams close out the season series in Boston on March 21.

The Magic’s schedule between now and the break for the NBA All-Star Game will do them no favors. Monday night’s game in San Antonio is about as difficult as it gets with back-to-backs in the NBA. Not only will the Magic be playing the Spurs (39-8) in a second game in as many nights, but they will be doing so in San Antonio where the Spurs are 25-0 this season.

``It was a good way for us to end the month with a win,’’ Vucevic said of Orlando’s two-win January. ``Now, we’ve got to wake up and start getting some wins. But one win is not going to do anything if we go back and start another losing streak.’’

After Monday’s game in San Antonio, the Magic play in Oklahoma City on Wednesday and host the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday. Following a (Super Bowl) Sunday/Monday home-and-home with the Atlanta Hawks, the Magic close out the first half of the season with a game against the Spurs on Feb. 10 at the Amway Center. The Magic will be off for the all-star break from Feb. 11-18.

Down seven at the half, Orlando made a spirited charge in the third quarter when things looked incredibly bleak. A 9-0 spurt put Boston up 67-54 and send the Magic into a timeout. But Orlando responded by riding the energy and athleticism of Gordon and Harris for a 16-2 burst of their own.

When Vucevic tipped in a miss with 3:07 to play in the third period, the Magic had their first lead of the night at 74-73. A running hook by Vucevic knotted the game at 81 at the end of the third period, one in which Orlando outscored Boston 34-27.

Orlando trailed 54-47 at the half largely because of its inability to run the Celtics off the 3-point line early in the game. Boston seven of its first 12 3-point shots in the first half to build a lead as large as 14 points.

Hezonja was a bright spot throughout the game, looking confident and aggressive while scoring 12 points and handing out two assists in the first half. Not only did the rookie make four of his first five shots – including a couple of 3-point shots – he also had nifty no-look assists to Gordon and Oladipo for open looks. For the game, he made seven of 15 shots and three of six 3-pointers and he was a plus-20 on the scoreboard in his 33 minutes on the floor.

``We have to keep growing up as a team and get the wins,’’ Hezonja said following the finest game of his NBA career.

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