Sharing the Ball Continues to be Key for Success

by John Denton

ORLANDO – In what just might go down as the possession of the season for an Orlando Magic team that has looked to be every bit the equal of many upper-crust NBA powers when they share the ball and play for one another, there were seven passes, 22 dribbles, 24 seconds used and a very frustrated foe.

Up two with 2:04 to play on Houston and superstar guard James Harden following a stirring fourth-quarter rally, the Magic were in need of one more haymaker to knock out the wobbly Rockets on Sunday night. What came next could certifiably be a defining moment in the season and also a blueprint for how the Magic need to play going forward.

Point guard D.J. Augustin, a name to remember in this game-defining sequence, brought the ball up court, rejected a screen and dribbled to the right wing. He then passed it to the top of the floor, where center Nikola Vucevic rubbed off an Aaron Gordon screen and went into a dribble-hand-off play with Evan Fournier. The Magic guard tested the defense of Harden by driving to the free throw line while wrapping a dribble behind his back.

Determined to keep the ball moving, Fournier kicked the ball back out to the left wing to a waiting Vucevic, who initiated another dribble-hand-off play with Gordon with eight seconds remaining on the shot clock.

As it turns out, the dizzying, side-to-side and inside-out ball movement was just getting started. After Gordon got into the heart of the defense, his drive-and-kick pass went out to Fournier, who immediately shoveled it to hot-shooting guard Terrence Ross back at the top of the floor. Ross kept it moving, finding Augustin on the left side. When a weary Harden jumped to contest the shot, Augustin waited to let him fly by, used one escape dribble to his right and let loose a 3-pointer that hit nothing but the net as the shot clock expired.

That patient, probing and practically perfect possession put the Magic up 112-107 and sent them on their way to a stirring 116-109 defeat of the Rockets before 16,982 at the Amway Center.

``Everybody was engaged, everybody was contributing, and we played our game,’’ said Gordon, who played a stellar all-around game with 22 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two steals. ``Whether we won that game or lost that game, we played together.’’

Making the feeling doubly sweet, the Magic (19-24) actually played that way twice over the weekend in beating the playoff-tested Boston Celtics and Rockets on back-to-back nights. Orlando used a 21-4 run in Saturday’s fourth quarter for a come-from-behind, 105-103 defeat of the Celtics. On Sunday, they withstood an early onslaught from Harden and used a 16-4 burst in the fourth quarter to surge past the Rockets.

``We played together and it was a tough game, just like (Saturday) night,’’ said Ross, who scored 25 points on Saturday and 17 on Sunday and poured in 17 fourth-quarter points in the two victories. ``We did a good job of staying together, playing for each other and making big plays down the stretch.’’

Adding to the magnitude of what the Magic accomplished over the weekend was the fact that they limped in riding a third four-game losing streak of the season. They dropped the final four games of an exhausting, six-game, 11-night West Coast trip – three of which they had leads of 15 points or more before faltering. What a difference a couple of big wins can make for a team, Gordon said.

``Winning cures everything,’’ he said. ``All of the bickering that was going on and all the doubt. – a couple of wins can change that. … Not so much bickering, but we just lost our purpose of play. Now, we can’t get complacent and we have to keep adding.’’

Consistency has been a sticking point for a Magic squad that has notched impressive victories against Boston (twice), Toronto, Houston, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Miami, Utah and the Los Angeles Lakers (twice). Orlando has suffered three four-game losing streaks, but it has responded to each with a win in San Antonio (Nov. 4) and a 7-2 burst, defeats of Toronto and Detroit (Dec. 28 and 30) and now the wins over Boston and Houston over the weekend.

Despite all of that up-and-down play, the Magic woke up on Monday morning just a half-game out of the final playoff spot in the pedestrian Eastern Conference – a fact that head coach Steve Clifford has reminded his team about repeatedly.

Up next is a Wednesday game in Detroit (18-23) against a Pistons team that is virtually tied with the Magic in the standings. The Blake Griffin-led Pistons figure to fight with the Magic all season and the winner of the season series could hold a tiebreaker edge that might matter come playoff time in mid-April. The two teams are 1-1 so far, but right now the Magic’s focus is on carrying their strong play from the weekend over to the 39 games the rest of the season.

``I know this sounds kind of basic, but if we play the right way offensively and move the ball, stay aggressive, play for each other and play with a purpose, we’re very efficient. And defensively when we’re focused, locked in and execute the game plan, we give ourselves a chance every night,’’ said Vucevic, Orlando’s leader all season in scoring (20.1) and rebounding (11.9). ``That’s been our issue all season – not being able to stay consistent. We did it two games, but now we have to do it night-in and night-out. Hopefully, we’re to a point now where we can do that. The next game is huge for us, against Detroit, which is a team that we’re going to fight for a playoff spot. Hopefully we can have another good night.’’

If the defeats of Boston and Houston proved anything to the Magic it’s that they must share the ball, play with patience and try to go from good-to-great shots with their wealth of scorers. Whereas Boston leaned heavily on Kyrie Irving (25 points, 16 shot attempts and 13 free throw tries) and Houston almost exclusively rode Harden (38 points, 32 shot attempts, an NBA-record-tying 16 3-point misses and 16 free throw attempts), the Magic spread things around in the two games. Against the Celtics, the Magic had two 20-point scorers, two more in double figures and 21 assists to set up their 36 field goals. Against the Rockets, four players scored in double figures, four more had at least seven points and seven players finished with at least two assists.

The Magic’s epic seven-pass, 22-dribble possession resulting in the victory-sealing 3-pointer from Augustin late on Sunday night showed them not only the way that they need to play, but also the way to play when trying to take down powerhouse teams that rely so heavily on one player.

``James Harden does so much for (the Rockets) and they rely on him so much. The same with Boston and Kyrie (Irving), and it’s understandable,’’ said Vucevic, who further strengthened his case to make the Eastern Conference all-star team with 16 points and 13 rebounds on Saturday and 22 points, nine boards, six assists and a steal on Sunday. ``(Harden and Irving) have come through for them so many times, you expect it all to go through them. They’re either going to shoot it or make the right play because the defense is so focused on them.

``But, for us, it’s a different type of situation,’’ the versatile 7-footer added. ``We don’t have those types of players and it has to be done where we get it done as a team on both ends of the floor. I thought our defense was great in the fourth quarter (on Sunday) and (Saturday) night. And our offense was even better, just moving the ball and finding the open guy. That’s what we did for 48 minutes (against Boston and Houston) and that’s how we have to play.’’

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