ORLANDO – Quite possibly the only thing more painful than the unsightly losing streak that the Orlando Magic had been mired in coming into Friday was the agonizing manner in which many of the defeats had played out.
Strong starters in recent games, the Magic had established a puzzling pattern of building and blowing early advantages upon running into adversity in the second half. Rarely, if ever, did they recover after losing leads en route to one frustration-filled defeat after another.
On Friday, with the Magic desperate to find their way out of a seven-game skid, a familiar pattern seemed to be playing out as Orlando saw an early edge disappear just minutes into the second half. This time, however, the Magic toughened up in the tense moments of the game and rode the clutch shooting of Evan Fournier and some gritty defense late for a much-needed victory.
Fournier hit a go-ahead 3-pointer late in regulation and then scored the first six points of overtime and the Magic limited Detroit to one field goal over the final nine minutes of action for a 115-106 win at the Amway Center.
``We communicated to each other on the bench and it made a big difference,’’ said Fournier, who started the game three of 11 from the floor, but finished with 17 points – seven of them coming in OT. ``We were kind of like, `OK, not again!’ It kind of changed the momentum at that point.’’
Orlando (19-43) led by as much as nine points in the early going but trailed by nine in the second half following another third-quarter dip. This time around, however, Orlando responded by getting several stellar plays from Aaron Gordon (27 points and 13 rebounds), Nikola Vucevic (22 points, 12 rebounds and six assists) and D.J. Augustin (20 points, nine assists and four 3-pointers).
The Magic trailed 99-93 on a Blake Griffin follow-up basket with 5:57 to play, but they tightened up their defense from there. Orlando held Detroit (29-33) to just one field goal the rest of regulation and it was run-out dunk by James Ennis III with 7.2 seconds left that knotted the score at 104.
Detroit then went nearly 4½ minutes of overtime without scoring against the Magic’s defense. The Pistons saw Andre Drummond clang two free throws and they proceeded to miss all eight of their shots of the extra period in losing to the Magic for a second time in three meetings.
``(Defense) is all we talked about the last 48 hours and I did see improvement in that (closing stretch),’’ raved Magic coach Frank Vogel, whose defense had surrendered 111.1 points per game during the seven-game losing streak. ``They missed a couple of open looks throughout that stretch, but for the most part the defensive intensity was really good and I think we were really committed to getting the (win) tonight.’’
Detroit came into Friday 2 ½ games back of the Miami Heat for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. It dropped to 6-7 since pulling off the blockbuster trade for Griffin, who finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
Orlando’s second OT victory of the season allowed it to win for the first time since Feb. 8 against the Atlanta Hawks. Also, it was the Magic’s first victory since the break for the NBA All-Star Game in five tries.
``We just kept fighting,’’ Vucevic said. ``I thought in that third quarter we went away from what had been working for us defensively. But in that fourth quarter we were able to rally back because we kept fighting. In overtime we did a great job defensively to get that win.’’
Fournier struggled most of the night, but he connected on a 3-pointer from the right wing with 47 seconds left in regulation that gave Orlando a 104-102 lead. In the extra period, Fournier got loose for another 3-pointer, converted a layup that was goal-tended by Andre Drummond and made one of two free throws to give Orlando a commanding 110-104 lead.
``I was just the moment – like I always say,’’ Fournier said. ``I didn’t think about my misses or the bad plays I made. (The three in regulation) went in and I kind of gained confidence from it. In overtime, it was just time to be aggressive.’’
With possession of the ball with 7.2 seconds remaining in regulation, Orlando had a chance to win the game without the need for overtime. The Magic got the ball to Vucevic at the free throw line and he drove to his left, absorbed a bump from Andre Drummond and fell to the floor as he lost the ball. Detroit’s final possession of regulation was thwarted when Magic rookie Jonathan Isaac deflected Anthony Tolliver’s inbounds pass.
Friday’s game saw the long-awaited return of Isaac, the prized rookie who saw action in a NBA game for the first time since Dec. 26. The No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, Isaac has played in just 16 games this season because of a lingering ankle issue. On Friday, he drilled a corner 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, had a steal and another deflection when he used his 7-foot wing span to disrupt the passing lanes.
The Magic’s medical staff limited Isaac to just 15 minutes in his first game back, but he still contributed three points, two rebounds, two steals and a block. Including his deflected pass at the end of regulation, it was a highly successful first game back for the 6-foot-10, 222-pound rookie.
``That’s me, that’s how God made me and I have to try and use it to the best of my ability,’’ Isaac said of using his 7-foot wingspan to disrupt things for opposing teams.
Reggie Bullock and James Ennis III each had 21 points for the Pistons. Drummond scored 10 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, but he missed all four of his free throws. Detroit shot just 43.5 percent from the field but did make 12 of 29 from beyond the 3-point stripe. Bullock had 21 shots and reserves Stanley Johnson and Dwight Buycks combined for 17 shots – three more than Griffin got against the hard-nosed defense of Gordon. For years, the young Magic standout has been compared to Griffin because of their similar physiques and explosive leaping ability. Gordon admitted afterward that he was extra motivated to win his individual matchup against Griffin.
``Everybody played great defensively all night long and it was one of the few times that we’ve listened to the game plan throughout the whole season,’’ Gordon said. ``It’s good when it comes together when everybody is on the same page and we come out with the win.’’
Orlando finished at 51.2 percent from the floor and sank 13 3-point shots.
The Magic will be back in action on Saturday night when they host the struggling Memphis Grizzlies at the Amway Center. It is the only time this season that the Magic will play a back-to-back with both games coming consecutively in Orlando.
``Unique, but I kind of like them,’’ Vogel said of the home games on consecutive nights. ``If you could have a job where you only play home games, that’s a pretty good job.’’
Ahead or tied the entire first half, Orlando fell into a hole as large as nine points in the third quarter before rallying back into the game. Vucevic had 10 points in the period, including a play where he dribbled the length of the floor and finished a fast break with a nifty floater in the lane, to help the Magic get the game knotted at 82 by the start of the fourth quarter.
As has so often been the case of late, the Magic were sharp offensively in the first half and held a 53-52 lead at intermission. Orlando torched the Pistons for 31 points and 52.2 percent shooting in the first quarter to pave the way for the strong start.
In the end, the Magic were able to bounce back from the third-quarter lull by getting strong offensive play from several players and a collective fight on the defensive end of the floor late in the night. Holding Detroit – a team desperate to win and stay in the playoff hunt – to one of 17 shooting over the final nine minutes spoke volumes about the Magic’s desire to find a way to win on Friday.
``We just hit the reset button,’’ Vogel said after the Magic lost the lead late in regulation before heading into OT. ``To get beat on a transition bucket was a little bit deflating, but like I said you hit the reset button and guys remained confident. They know that we’ve been playing good basketball, but just haven’t gotten over the hump. We were able to do so tonight.’’
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