CLEVELAND – Last season, when the Orlando Magic won 42 games and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2012, one of the biggest factors in that stirring success was guard Terrence Ross’ ability to heat up late in games and dig the squad out of fourth-quarter deficits.
On Friday, with the Magic’s offense sputtering, their defense again shaky and them staring at a two-point deficit to start the fourth quarter, Ross rescued Orlando much the same way he did last season when it had 11 come-from-behind victories in the final period.
Ross scored 10 of his 21 points in the fourth period and the Magic got big defensive plays down the stretch from Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon and Khem Birch to rally past the Cleveland Cavaliers 93-87 at Rocket Mortgage Field House.
``It was such a close game and on the road that it was the type of game that we’ve got to pull out because we needed this one,’’ said Ross, who made three of four shots, two of three 3-pointers and two of two free throws in the fourth quarter alone. ``It was still close (starting the fourth), so we didn’t have to worry too much because we knew we’d have a chance to create a lead. We played confidently, we played through each other, we moved the ball and we did (grab control in the fourth).’’
Orlando (11-11) won its fourth straight game and for the fifth time in the last six. The victory allowed the Magic to get back to .500 on the season for the first time since they were 2-2 on Oct. 30. Orlando dropped as low as four games below .500 on two different occasions, but it has since rallied with its best stretch of basketball of the season.
The Magic pulled out Friday’s game because of Ross’ fourth-quarter shooting and the focus on defense late in the game. After scoring 127 and 128 points in the two previous games, Magic head coach Steve Clifford warned his team that it wouldn’t always be able to rely on its shooting and would need to defend to win. On Friday, the Magic did just that and gutted out another victory.
``We won that game defensively,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who had 18 points and two 3-pointers. ``We have (shooting) talent, but we’re not a top-five offense team. For us, it was a matter of getting back to Magic basketball, which is being a hard-playing team, one that out-executes the other team and is really disciplined defensively.’’
Gordon, the offensive hero of Wednesday’s home win over Phoenix, blocked a Collin Sexton layup off the glass with 53.2 seconds remaining. Then, he had a thunderous dunk with 19.9 ticks remaining to give Orlando a five-point lead and send it on its way to the win.
``We made a lot of mistakes defensively, I know I did personally, and we’re still a long way from where we can get to,’’ Gordon said. ``I don’t even think we played that well defensively, but it’s just one of those things where you’ve got to figure out a way to pull the game out some way, somehow.’’
Down 70-68 to start the final period, the Magic improved to 3-10 this season when trailing after three quarters. Ross opened the fourth period with eight of Orlando’s first 11 points by making all three of his shots – two of which were clutch 3-pointers after rubbing off screens.
``(Ross) gave us a great boost to start the fourth quarter,’’ Fournier said. ``That was like a flashback to last season, for sure.’’
Orlando won despite making just 39 percent of their shots and only nine of 26 3-pointers. Fresh off his season-best 32-point effort on Wednesday, Gordon had 14 points and five rebounds.
Isaac, who came into the game second the NBA in blocked shots per game (2.68), swatted four more shots on Friday and added nine points and six rebounds. Not long after he went high into the air to block a hook shot by Tristan Thompson (10 points, seven rebounds and five assists) to preserve an 84-83 lead, Isaac buried a 16-foot shot that sent the Magic on their way to a fourth straight victory.
``It was just one of those grind-out wins that we needed,’’ Isaac said. ``This was, I think this was eight (games) in 14 nights and that wears on you, but we were able to take their runs and come out on top.’’
Cleveland (5-16) lost for a fifth straight time and for the 10th time in the past 11 games. Sexton finished with 19 points for the Cavs.
Friday’s game was the third meeting of the season between the two teams and the second in 10 nights. Orlando won 116-104 in Cleveland on Nov. 27 in a game where it forced the Cavs into 25 turnovers. The two teams also opened the regular season in Orlando on Oct. 23 with the Magic winning 94-85.
This time, the Magic won because Ross got the offense going to start the fourth quarter and they were good defensively late in the period when it mattered.
``It’s going to have to be (defensive),’’ Clifford said of the mindset his team needs to have going forward. ``That’s what we need it to be, but I wouldn’t say that’s what it is all the time now. But that’s what we need (the mentality) to be.’’
Point guards D.J. Augustin (10 points and seven assists) and Markelle Fultz (eight points, five rebounds and two assists) contributed in spurts on a night when points were difficult to come by for both teams.
Cleveland was without all-star forward Kevin Love (illness), while Orlando once again didn’t have all-star center Nikola Vucevic (right ankle sprain) and key reserve Al-Farouq Aminu (torn meniscus in right knee). Vucevic, who has been out since Nov. 20, missed his eighth consecutive game, while Aminu was out for a fourth straight game.
After playing eight times in a 14-night stretch, the Magic will get some much-needed time off before taking on one of their biggest challenges of the season on Monday. The Magic were scheduled to stay in Cleveland following Friday’s game and then fly to Milwaukee on Saturday. The team will return to the practice court on Sunday to prep for Monday night’s game against the surging Bucks. Orlando’s first meeting with the Bucks and superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t go very well as Milwaukee rolled to a 123-91 victory at the Amway Center on Nov. 1.
Up five at intermission, the Magic suffered an offensive meltdown in the third period to cost them the lead. After making just five of 17 shots and scoring 16 third-quarter points, Orlando found itself in a 70-68 hole. That had to be troubling for the Magic considering that they had been 2-10 previously this season when trailing after three periods.
But that’s when Ross heated up to start the fourth quarter. He opened the period with a 17-foot jumper off a feed from Gordon and then drained a 28-foot 3-pointer while moving to his left. Seconds later, Ross drilled another 28-foot 3-pointer that sent Orlando on its way to another come-from-behind win after trailing to start the fourth period.
``That’s what (Ross) does – he’s a bona-fide shot-maker,’’ Isaac said of his teammate. ``We trust him, we rely on him a lot and usually comes through for us.’’
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