Postgame Report: Magic Cruise Past Suns For Third Straight Win

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Undoubtedly, the Orlando Magic are counting the days until all-star center Nikola Vucevic is able to return from the sprained right ankle that has already caused him to miss seven games.

But a funny thing has happened to Orlando’s offense over the last two weeks as it has had to adjust to life without its best all-around player on the floor. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Magic have become more diverse, dynamic and downright dominant while not only surviving but thriving without Vucevic in Magic pinstripes.

A night after placing six players in double digits and scoring a season-best 127 points in a win in Washington, the Magic rode season-high scoring nights from Aaron Gordon and Terrence Ross and some more torrid shooting to throttle the Phoenix Suns 128-114.

Orlando (10-11) won its third straight game and for a fourth time in five games to get back to within a victory of .500. The 128 points were another season high for a Magic squad that struggled to score and make shots early in the season. As it turns out, the back-to-back efforts allowed the Magic to score more than 125 in consecutive games for just the third time in the 31-year history of the franchise.

On Wednesday, a noisy Amway Center crowd of 15,176 looked on in delight as the Magic shot a season-best 57.6 percent from the floor, hit 14 3-pointers and placed five more players in double digits in scoring.

``We’ve had to kind of reinvent ourselves, find different looks and we’re doing a really, really good job of moving the ball,’’ said guard Evan Fournier, who followed up games of 32 and 31 points with 21 points, four assists and three 3-pointers on Wednesday. ``We just have a really good rhythm right now.’’

No one shot the ball better on Wednesday than Gordon, who scored a season-best 32 points while connecting on all five of his 3-point shots and 13 of 15 field goals in the game. In addition to torching the Suns (9-11) for 15 third-quarter points and five rebounds and five assists on the night, Gordon had a twisting dunk over center Phoenix center Frank Kaminsky and a dazzling alley-oop flush in the third period off a D.J. Augustin feed.

``My first shot felt really good, I shot it and knew it was going in,’’ said Gordon, whose rhythm has started to return following a three-game absence with a right ankle injury. ``Then, (after that first shot) I just let the rest of the game come to me.’’

Much like Gordon, Ross struggled with his shot early in the season, but he was dialed in and aggressive throughout Wednesday’s game. He burned the Suns for a season-best 22 points by hitting three 3-pointers and looking more like the dynamic weapon off the bench that the Magic utilized so often last season.

Point guards Markelle Fultz (13 points and five assists) and Augustin (11 points and seven assists) both played well as the Magic scored 34 points in the second quarter and 38 in the third to break the game wide open.

After ranking in the bottom five of the league in almost every major offensive category early in the season, Orlando has started to show signs of being a potent team that hurt foes in a variety of ways. The Magic were the last team in the NBA to break 100 points this season, but their 127 and 128 points the last two nights make that feel like a distant memory now.

``For sure, it’s shooting and shot-making,’’ Magic head coach Steve Clifford said of his team’s improvements. ``Look at Evan’s numbers, A.G. tonight, the game in Cleveland (on Nov. 27) with Mo (Bamba) going five-for-five from three. Definitely, we’re shooting the ball a lot better.’’

Bamba, who was playing in his first back-to-back set of games of the season as the Magic have looked to limit his minutes, helped out in a variety of areas on Wednesday. He had 11 points and 10 rebounds for the second double-double of his young career. He also blocked four shots and added two 3-pointers in 18 minutes off the bench.

``We knew that it was going to be a challenge (playing without Vucevic), but we all accepted it with open arms and embraced that challenge,’’ said Bamba, who has averaged 8.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks over his last five games. ``We are who we are now. Now, it’s just a matter of continuing to capitalize on it.’’

Kaminsky scored 21 of his 23 points in the first half for a Phoenix team that has been one of the NBA’s early-season surprise teams. The Suns, who were without suspended center Deandre Ayton and injured big man Aron Baynes, had Tuesday off to rest in Orlando while the Magic played in Washington, but it was difficult to tell which team had more energy with the Magic bolting to a lead as large as 24 points in the second half.

Devin Booker had 17 points for the Suns.

Wednesday’s game came less than 24 hours after Orlando beat the Wizards 127-120 in Washington, D.C. The Magic arrived back in Central Florida just after 1 a.m. and was back on the floor less than 18 hours later. Orlando struggled in its first two back-to-back sets of games on the season, losing road games in Oklahoma City and Dallas and home games against Milwaukee and Denver on consecutive nights.

``For a second night of a back-to-back, we had great energy and we had good purpose of play,’’ Clifford said. ``Obviously a lot of guys were terrific, but you can’t play a much better game than Aaron Gordon played.’’

Out three games and more than a week with a bone bruise in his right ankle, Gordon struggled to regain his rhythm and shooting touch in his first three games back. However, he heated up Tuesday in Washington (18 points, 11 rebounds and two 3-pointers) and carried it over to Wednesday. He had 12 first-half points and two 3-pointers. Incredibly, he was even better in the third period when he made all six of his shots, including three 3-pointers, to pump in 15 points in that quarter to help the Magic break the game open.

``I’m working on (3-point shooting) every day. It’s a part of my game that’s coming along and will continue to get better the more that I work at it,’’ said Gordon, a 33.3 percent 3-point shooter on the season. ``It’s just about relaxing, shooting my shot, and of course, it helps my team when they go in.’’

On a night when he had plenty of highlight-worthy plays, Gordon’s best moment came when he took a feed from Wes Iwundu, soared into the air and twisted his body around before dunking on Phoenix’s Kaminsky.

``Wes made a great pass, and you can’t forget about that because he threaded the needle off the bounce,’’ Gordon said. ``He led me right to the basket. I was going to reverse it and I saw the defense coming – I didn’t know that it was Frank – but I just kept spinning.’’

As for Bamba, he’s made enough progress physically and with his play that the Magic’s medical staff allowed him to play in a back-to-back set of games on Tuesday and Wednesday for the first time all season. Bamba’s rookie year ended prematurely last January when he suffered a stress fracture in his left leg. To lighten the load on his leg, the Magic held him out of one of the games in the first two back-to-backs of the season. However, with Vucevic still out, Bamba was pressed into duty on Wednesday after playing 16 minutes on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. and compiling four points and eight rebounds.

He got off to a strong start on Wednesday, compiling seven points, six rebounds and two blocks in his first nine minutes. However, he landed awkwardly on his left leg on a block attempt with 7:15 remaining in the half and limped to the bench. Bamba, who said he ``tweaked’’ his calf muscle, was eventually cleared to return and got back into the game with 3:26 left in the third quarter. And he played well when he was back in the game.

``It’s all about a mindset and a mentality of knowing that I’ve got to hit first and be in position first,’’ Bamba said of his increased aggression on the floor in recent games. ``It’s just something that I’ve got to keep doing while embracing this challenge.’’

After playing two games in as many nights, the Magic will get a much-needed day of rest on Thursday. However, the team will still be forced to spend part of the off day travelling to northeast Ohio for Friday’s road game in Cleveland.

The Magic will be back in Cleveland slightly more than a week after thumping the Cavaliers 116-104 on Nov. 27. In that game, Fournier poured in 30 points and the Magic forced the youthful Cavaliers into 25 turnovers – eight of which came from rookie guard Darius Garland. Orlando is 2-0 this season against the Cavaliers, having also defeated them 94-85 on Oct. 23 in the season opener for both teams.

Up 65-58 at the half following a 34-point second quarter, Orlando pushed its advantage to as much as 22 early in the third period.

A night after hanging a season-best 127 points on the Wizards in Washington, the Magic picked right up where they left off in Wednesday’s first half. Orlando shot 54.2 percent, drilled six 3-pointers and scored 32 paint points on its way to a 65-58 lead at the half.

The Magic had a 25-17 edge on the boards in the first 25 minutes and used their nine offensive rebounds to build a 16-11 edge in second-chance points.

The Magic also got a huge lift off the bench from Ross (12 points and two 3-pointers) and Augustin (nine points and four assists) in the first half. Both had four-point plays in the first half by hitting threes as they were fouled and then sank the ensuing free throws. Augustin’s four-point play put Orlando ahead 43-41, which was significant considering that it trailed by as much as 10 points in the early going.

As for Gordon, he likes how the Magic have adapted their offense since the loss of Vucevic and veteran forward Al-Farouq Aminu to injuries. As long as Orlando continues to share the ball, he sees no reason why this stretch of torrid shooting can’t continue.

``We’re a collective group and we score collectively,’’ Gordon opined. ``We’re just holding it down until Vooch gets back because we need him in the long run. Everybody is just stepping up.’’

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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