ORLANDO – The eyes of the basketball world were on the Orlando Magic’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday primarily in order to analyze all-star forward Jimmy Butler’s debut with his new team.
Instead, what those fans got to see was a Magic team that refused to quit when things looked dire and one that refused to lose when the game was on the line against Butler and the stacked Sixers.
An Amway Center crowd of 15,291 looked on with glee as the Magic wiped out a 16-point, fourth-quarter deficit with a jaw-dropping 21-0 surge and got a tiebreaking 3-pointer from Terrence Ross in the final seconds for a 111-106 defeat of Philadelphia.
Ross, Orlando’s best reserve all season, confidently ran the shot clock and game clock down before using a screen to free himself for a straight-on 3-pointer that broke a 106-all tie with 8.7 seconds to play. Ross, who continued his torrid shooting with 15 points and three 3-pointers, took particular delight in spoiling Butler’s debut with the Sixers (9-7) while lifting the Magic (7-8) to another victory.
``Any time a big trade like that happens in the league it creates a lot of attention and it’s good to kind of spoil that and keep us going and make sure we’re on the right track,’’ said Ross, who incredibly has made 12 of 18 3-pointers in the last three games. ``It was a good feeling for all of us.’’
Orlando won for a fifth time in the past seven games – none of them bigger that beating a Sixers team that is expected to contend for the Eastern Conference title after acquiring the mercurial Butler from Minnesota earlier in the week. Philadelphia was hoping to get an offensive bump from the newly acquired shooting guard, but it didn’t have a field goal over the game’s last 3:33 against Orlando’s gritty defense.
``We’ve got a lot of firepower, we’ve got a lot of guys who can play and a lot of guys who care about winning on this team,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who had one of the most efficient games of his career with 17 points, six rebounds, six assists, two blocks and just one turnover in nearly 32 minutes.
Added Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, who made his return from an ankle injury and had one of the plays of the night by stuffing a dunk attempt by Joel Embiid during the game-turning 21-0 burst: ``I want us to grow to the place where we expect that, and we expect to beat the best teams in this league. We will be one of the best teams in this league when we continue to put it together and play as a team. Tonight is an example of what can take place this entire season.’’
Seconds before Ross’ game-winning shot for the Magic, Philadelphia guard J.J. Redick shoved Orlando’s D.J. Augustin for an offensive foul. Then, following Ross’ clutch shot, Redick – the former Magic star who beat Orlando in mid-October in Philadelphia with a 3-pointer – was whistled for another turnover when he stepped out of bounds on a dribble-hand-off play.
Magic center Nikola Vucevic had 11 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter, and he added eight rebounds and four assists in outplaying Philly superstar Joel Embiid (19 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists).
Butler scored 14 points, but he got off just 12 shots in nearly 33 minutes. Redick had 22 points and four 3-pointers, while Wilson Chandler added 14 points and Ben Simmons scored nine and added six assists.
Philadelphia was outscored 35-19 over the final 12 minutes of the game by a Magic squad that refused to quit. Mike Muscala (five points) had a 3-pointer with 3:33 to play that gave Philly a 104-100 lead, but the Sixers did not have a field goal the rest of the way.
``We kept fighting the whole game. I know we got down in the fourth, but little by little we were able to get it back tied and win it,’’ said Vucevic, who made 10 of 19 shots, three of six 3-pointers and seven of eight free throws. ``I thought we played well for 48 minutes. (The Sixers) are a very good team and we thought they’d be very fired up after just making a big trade. But we stayed poised for 48 minutes. It was a great team effort.’’
Down 92-76 early in the fourth quarter, Orlando turned what looked to be a laugher into a jaw-dropping about-face. Incredibly, the Magic ripped off 21 consecutive points during a four-minute stretch for the ages. During one particularly energized session, the Magic got a 3-pointer from Vucevic, the spectacular block by Isaac on an Embiid dunk attempt, a long jumper from Ross and an infamous ``heat-check’’ 3-pointer again from Ross that caused the home crowd to erupt with raw noise. Remarkably, the Magic went from down 16 to five up following the run that electrified the Amway Center crowd.
``Oh, they fought,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``Even at the end of the third (quarter) when (the Magic) came to the bench, you could tell guys were positive and upbeat with each other. Then, we played 12 hard, smart minutes and it was good to see.’’
For Isaac, the big block against the 260-pound Embiid, it took away the sting of an ankle injury that cost him the last 10 days and six games.
``It felt fantastic,’’ said Isaac, who had four points, six rebounds and the one block in 16 minutes. ``I came out of the game saying under my breath, `Lord, You’re faithful. He really is, and I feel so good being out there. After missing 10 days, I’m back and I feel great.’’
Added Gordon, referring to Isaac’s block: ``That was pretty much the play of the game. … Just the challenge alone, it takes a lot of courage to go up there and block somebody (like Embiid) coming down the lane like that. So, that was a big-time play for us.’’
Wednesday’s game attracted the attention of the basketball world with the highly controversial Butler making his debut with the Sixers. The four-time all-star, was acquired on Monday from Minnesota for a package that included Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jeryd Bayless and a future second-round pick. The Sixers are hopeful that the mercurial Butler can coexist with the flashy personalities of Embiid and Simmons.
``Obviously, we didn’t win and get the outcome, but we’ve got a lot more of these (games),’’ Butler said. ``I think we will all be better – myself included. I shot the ball when I was open and passed it to the open guy when they were open. I think I just played basketball the right way, but we just came up a little bit short.’’
Isaac, 21 years old and in his second season, enjoyed stealing the attention away from Butler with his team’s stirring rally in the fourth quarter.
``Even all the fans out here were expecting to see Jimmy have a great game and see Philly have a great game, but we were able to protect our home court,’’ said Isaac, who was a part of an Orlando defense that held Butler scoreless in the fourth quarter. ``It gives us great pride and I hope we continue to do this.’’
Wednesday’s game brought an end to one of the Magic’s most taxing stretches of the season. The showdown against the Sixers wrapped up a stretch where the Magic played eight times in 13 nights. Now, Orlando will get two days to rest and recover before facing LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday night at the Amway Center.
After matching the stacked Sixers shot for shot in the first half and leading by one at intermission, the Magic offense ground to a crawl in the third quarter. After making just nine of 21 shots and struggling to slow down Philly, Orlando headed into the fourth period trailing 87-76. Making that even more frustrating was the fact that the Magic opened the second half with five straight points to build their lead to six points – the biggest of the night.
Vucevic, who was so dominant in the first half when he scored 19 points, got deep position three times in the third quarter, but saw each of those shots rim out.
Things would only get worse at the start of the fourth quarter as Orlando missed its first three shots and Philadelphia pushed the lead to 92-76 with 10:51 to play.
At that point, the game most likely could have gone one of two ways. All too often, the Magic have seen those types of nights devolve into forgettable, 25-point losses. On this night, the Magic kept fighting on both ends of the floor and used huge plays from Ross, Isaac, Vucevic, Gordon, Augustin and Fournier to pull off the kind of come-from-behind victory that won’t soon be forgotten.
The difference in this season’s solid start and others that were short-lived in previous years, Gordon stressed, is that the Magic’s momentum can be sustainable going forward. By relying on gritty defense, unselfish ball movement and opportunistic offense, the Magic are confident that the team has finally hit a breakthrough moment.
``We’ve developed a sustainable way of playing,’’ said Gordon, who is in one of the best five-game stretches of his four-plus-year career with the Magic. ``Last year, we were reliant on shot-making alone. When we weren’t making shots, we weren’t winning. This year, it’s more about holding everybody accountable to the way that we need to play.’’
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