Orlando Magic Earn Thrilling Comeback Win in Brooklyn

Terrence Ross
by John Denton

BROOKLYN – Nikola Vucevic’s biggest assist of Monday night – and possibly the Orlando Magic center’s biggest assist of the season – came, not during the game action, but instead in a fiery third-quarter time out that clearly got the attention of his teammates.

When the usually mild-mannered and soft-spoken Vucevic dramatically raised the volume of his voice and the ire in his demeanor, the Magic snapped out of a malaise, pulled off the largest comeback of the season and gutted out a potentially huge victory against the Brooklyn Nets.

Down 13 points at the half and trailing by as much as 19 early in the third quarter, Vucevic verbally chided his teammates for their passive play and their lack of ball movement in a time out with 8:47 to play in the third period. From that point on, the Magic delivered their best stretch of offense of the season behind the shooting of Terrence Ross and Vucevic and rode several big plays down the stretch from Aaron Gordon in a 115-113 defeat of the Nets that was equal parts stunning and exhilarating.

Orlando (25-32) responded to a dismal 41-point first half with a whopping 74 points in the second half. A Magic team that shot just 35.6 percent from the floor and missed 15 of 18 3-point shots over the game’s first 24 minutes inexplicably shot 63.6 percent in the second half and converted on 10 of 16 threes. Add it all up and it led to the largest come-from-behind win (19 points) of the season.

Afterward, Gordon (27 points and three 3-pointers), Ross (21 points and four 3-pointers), Evan Fournier (21 points and three 3-pointers) and even head coach Steve Clifford said it was the fiery rant by Vucevic (16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists) that pushed Orlando to the victory.

``That was Vooch, he was yelling at us and that’s what we needed,’’ said Ross, who scored all 21 of his points in the second half after missing six consecutive shots in the opening half. ``That got everybody on the same page, that changed the momentum, we started playing better and moving the ball more and it led to us getting after them more. It was the spark that we needed.’’

Added Clifford, referring to Vucevic taking over his team’s huddle in the third quarter: ``To me, that’s the way the NBA should be. The better teams that I’ve been around – I tell these guys that all the time about that (2007-12 Magic) team when I was here before – if you’re not talking to each other about the right stuff, you can’t make progress. I don’t know what (Vucevic’s) message was, but that’s the way it should be.’’

Part of Vucevic’s message was directed at himself after he scored just two points in the first half – passive play that led to the Magic trailing 54-41 at intermission. What that deficit swelled to 19 at 67-48 in the third quarter, Vucevic felt the need to speak up and try to light a proverbial fire under his teammates. Did he ever do just that over the final 20 minutes of action?

``I’m not sure that was the reason, but I just felt like we needed something, we needed something to wake us up and get us going because we were flat,’’ said Vucevic, who made six of his last 10 shots following a one-of-five start. ``I felt like I said what was needed to be said and it was what we needed. I just wanted to wake us up a little bit because we weren’t playing with enough energy on that (offensive) end. I don’t know if it was the reason or not (for the second-half surge), but we got the win and that’s what matters.’’

The win could prove to be a highly important one for an Orlando squad that cut Brooklyn’s lead in the standings to 1 ½ games. The Magic, who started a stretch of 15 of 19 games against foes with losing records, are in the eighth seed, but have designs on overtaking the Nets (26-30) for the seventh seed before the playoffs start in mid-April. Orlando is now 2-0 against Brooklyn and have guaranteed themselves at least a tie in the four-game, head-to-head season series. Last season, the Magic and Nets each won 42 games, but Brooklyn got the higher seed because of a better head-to-head mark.

``Before the break (for the NBA All-Star Game) I kept saying, `We just need one win,’ and hopefully this will be a big confidence-builder for us,’’ said Fournier, whose 14-point first half kept the Magic within striking distance when the rest of the offense was sputtering. ``Hopefully we can play the same way against the (Atlanta) Hawks (on Wednesday) and keep it going.’’

Gordon, who was playing his second game since his controversial runner-up finish in the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest, delivered arguably his best all-around performance of the season. Not only did he make 11 of 16 and three of four 3-pointers – the final one a step-back three with 1:12 to play that put Orlando ahead 115-111 – he stuffed a Caris LeVert layup attempt with 14.2 seconds left that could have knotted the game.

When Taurean Prince’s 3-point shot with three-tenths of a second was of the mark, Gordon, Vucevic and their Magic mates could celebrate the biggest comeback victory of the season. The 19-point rally eclipsed the Magic’s 16-point rally past the San Antonio Spurs back on Nov. 15.

``I think it was our urgency, our energy, our physicality, we started moving the ball and it was our overall aggressiveness,’’ said Gordon said of a second half where he made all seven of his shots with three 3-pointers for 17 points after intermission. ``This is big. We’re going to see Brooklyn again, maybe two more times, and if it ever comes down to a tiebreaker, we have a two-game (head-to-head) lead on them.

``We’re in the hunt and this was a big one for us to get,’’ Gordon continued. ``I feel like we’ve let go of a lot of games. ``Now, it’s time to get a hold of them.’’

The Magic shot 49.4 percent for the game with 13 3-pointers. Their 63.6 percent shooting after halftime is a new season high, breaking the previous mark of 62.2 percent in the second half against Phoenix on Dec. 4. Brooklyn shot 47.9 percent with 16 3-pointers – but it managed just 44.9 in the second half as it was getting outscored 74-59 over the final 24 minutes of the game.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 24 points for the seventh-seeded Nets, while LeVert had 19 points and Garrett Temple chipped in 18 off the bench. The Nets came into the game with the NBA’s ninth-best defense, but they had few answers for the Magic offense in the second half.

Clearly, the Magic made some major strides on Monday – one of the things that Clifford pointed to prior to tipoff.

``It’s an important game, but with (25 games) left, the best teams are thinking about, `Are we getting better? What do we have to do to get better offensively and better defensively?’’’ Clifford said. ``That’s what we should be thinking about and not, `this this a big game.’ We play today, again Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. You have to play well and that’s all we should be thinking about.’’

Orlando defeated Brooklyn 101-89 on Jan. 6 at the Amway Center in the first meeting of the season between the two teams. That night point guard Markelle Fultz scored a career-best 25 points and buried two 3-pointers, while Vucevic racked up 24 rebounds. The two teams play twice more this season – one more in Brooklyn (March 23) and once in Orlando (March 27).

The Magic will be back on the practice floor on Tuesday in Atlanta, where they will take on the Southeast Division-rival Hawks on Wednesday night. Tipoff is at 7:30 p.m. Orlando and Atlanta have already played three times and Wednesday’s game will be the final one between the two teams this season.

The Hawks won 103-99 in Atlanta in the second game of the season for both teams. All-star guard Trae Young scored 39 points that night, including a game-sealing 3-pointer with 26.2 seconds remaining that he banked in. Atlanta won 101-93 on Dec. 30 in Orlando despite Young missing the game because of an injury. The Magic got a small measure of revenge on Feb. 20 when they outlasted Young and the Hawks 135-126 at the Amway Center.

``This either ends up being the beginning of improved, sustained play or it’s just a really good win, which every team in this league has,’’ Clifford said of his postgame speech to his team. ``It’s one of those two things. We either go to practice (on Tuesday), we try to get better, we learn from it and then we play well against a team in Atlanta that we’ve really struggled with this year. Or we started a road trip fine. Every team in our league will have a good win and that was a really good win, so we’ll see what we make of it.’’

Down 13 at the half, the Magic saw the deficit swell to as much as 19 points in the third quarter before finally coming alive. Prior to a 15-4 burst that got them, Vucevic verbally tore into his teammates in the third-quarter time out. The Magic eventually got as close as four points of the Nets in the third period and headed into the final period trailing 87-81.

Quiet in the early going, Vucevic and Ross heated up in the third to spark the Magic offense. Off in the early going, Orlando drilled 15 of 22 tries and five of 10 threes in the third period behind the play of Vucevic (12 points on five-of-five shooting) and Ross (eight points on three-of-four shooting with two 3-pointers).

``That was big, man. Vooch talked about the offensive end, how the ball was sticking and that’s where the lack of points were coming from,’’ Gordon said. ``And on the defensive end, myself and (Fultz) were trying to get everybody’s physicality up and it worked out.’’

Said Ross of Vucevic’s rant: ```Just move the ball’ – as simple as that – that was the quote. It’s easy basketball. Actually, no (expletives). He just said it really loud.’’

As was the case in Friday’s loss to the Mavericks, the Magic got off to a slow start because of struggles at both ends and found themselves in a daunting 54-41 hole at intermission. Not only did the Magic surrender 51.1 percent shooting, six 3-point shots and 32 paint points in the opening half, they combatted those woes with more woeful shooting in the early going.

Orlando shot just 35.6 percent overall in the early going and missed 15 of its first 17 3-point shots. It was similar to Friday when the Magic misfired on 18 of their first 19 3-point tries.

As it turned out, the poor start that spilled over into the third quarter proved to be the jumping off point for Vucevic’s time-out rant and Orlando’s biggest rally of the season.

``I don’t think it was that big of a deal, but it was something that needed to be said and it was something that has been an issue for us this year,’’ said Vucevic, whose move-the-ball rant sparked second-half passing that saw the Magic hand out 17 assists over the final 24 minutes. ``I said what needed to be said. It came in a moment, I said what I said, and we responded well to it.’’

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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