Postgame Report: Shorthanded Magic Win Thriller Over Lakers

Markelle Fultz
by John Denton

LOS ANGELES – With an improbable and almost preposterous storyline seemingly so far-fetched that a nearby Hollywood director certainly would have killed it, the Orlando Magic played the role of giant killers and got strong play from a free-agent forward they met a day earlier, a player who had spent most of his career in the minors, a shooting guard who supposedly couldn’t shoot straight and the few remaining pieces of their injury-ravaged core.

Just to advance the downright stunning narrative several steps further, the Magic limped into Staples Center to face the NBA’s most iconic player and its winningest franchise this season and did the unthinkable for one of the most unthinkable victories in the 31-year history of the franchise.

Down five top-line players because of injuries and forced to rely on lineups that head coach Steve Clifford never envisioned some three months ago in training camp, a Magic team with 10 healthy bodies made all the key plays down the stretch to win 119-118 and down LeBron James and a Los Angeles Lakers team that had previously won nine straight games.

``It’s huge,’’ said Magic point guard Markelle Fultz, who capped his breathtaking triple-double performance (21 points, a career-best 11 rebounds and 10 assists) with two gritty layups in traffic over the final the final 38 seconds to seal the victory. ``One, it’s a big milestone to get a triple-double, but the biggest thing was that we came here and got a win. We were the underdogs and we were down men, but it’s just a blessing to compete, have fun and get the (win).’’

Nikola Vucevic had 19 points – none of them bigger than the 3-pointer he drilled with 55.9 seconds left to put Orlando up 114-110. In what was his best all-around game of the season, Aaron Gordon hounded James (19 points, 19 rebounds and a pedestrian seven-of-19 shooting) and had one acrobatic dunk after another on his way to 21 points, six rebounds and two steals.

``At the end of the day, we’ve got players in this locker room,’’ said Gordon, who led the Magic past the Lakers in L.A. for a second straight season and just the seventh time in franchise history. ``Over an 82-game season, there are going to be bumps and bruises, but for people to step up and step in like they did, it’s definitely a confidence booster for the organization.’’

Rather than the night’s storyline revolving around injuries to Jonathan Isaac (left knee sprain), Al-Farouq Aminu (right knee surgery), Evan Fournier (right quad bruise), D.J. Augustin (left knee swelling and soreness) and Michael Carter-Williams (left shoulder sprain) and a predictable result against the surging Lakers (33-8), the Magic (20-21) instead stole the show with unlikeliest cast of characters.

Wes Iwundu, who has worked to overcome the shooting struggles that plagued him early in his career, started at – of all places – shooting guard and scored a career best 19 points. Gary Clark, who was just signed to a 10-day contract on Tuesday, made two 3-pointers and scored 10 points. B.J. Johnson, the player passed over so many times while he toiled at G League Lakeland much of the last two seasons, contributed nine points, three rebounds, two steals and a 3-pointer.

``Just watching the way I played against (the Magic) before and seeing all the young guys who are so hungry and play the right way, it’s amazing to come out there tonight and do what we did,’’ said Clark, who played previously with the Houston Rockets before being unceremoniously waived earlier in the month. ``I’m thankful to the coaching staff and every player here to make me feel comfortable right away, embracing me and making sure I knew what was going on. It was huge for all of us.’’

Despite the obvious holes in the team that the Magic put on the floor on Wednesday because of the myriad of injuries, this was, by no measure, a fluke or an accidental win. Orlando scored a season-best 35 points in the first quarter, pushed its lead to 20 in the second quarter, surged back ahead by 21 in the third and rallied even after the Lakers had surged ahead by four points with 7:53 to play.

No, the Magic got the win they deserved on Wednesday when they carved up a Lakers’ defense that came into the night third in the NBA in points allowed (105.1), fourth in field goal percentage allowed (44.9 percent) and fourth in 3-point percentage allowed (33.3 percent). On this night, Orlando scored 119 points, shot 46.2 percent from the floor, drilled 10 3-pointers and converted 23 of 29 free throws.

``Every guy contributed – the guys, Gary Clark and B.J. (Johnson) in their first games, really played well – and we made the big plays at the end,’’ Clifford said of his team’s fight. ``We played without some of our better players and it should be great for our confidence. But lately we’ve been playing better and better.’’

``Better and better’’ is the best way to describe the blossoming play of the 21-year-old Fultz, who looked like the best player on the floor at times on Wednesday even though he was sharing it with James.

Back on Friday, Fultz committed a critical turnover that led to a 98-94 loss to the Phoenix Suns. On Wednesday, he was determined to prove himself a better player in the clutch. This time around, he had six points, four assists and three rebounds in the fourth quarter alone for the second triple-double of his three-year NBA career.

Afterward, Fultz was congratulated in the hallway outside the Magic’s locker room by Lakers’ physical therapist Judy Seto, the woman credited with helping the guard get past the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome injury that hijacked much of his first two seasons in the NBA.

The night, Fultz admitted afterward, felt almost dreamlike considering how everything fell into place for both he and the Magic.

``It’s big, it’s what I dreamed of and it’s what I work every day for,’’ admitted Fultz, who sank nine of 19 shots and all three of his free throws. ``It was good all night and it was fun. I’ve been in a couple of close games recently and I learned from my mistakes and it was fun to be out there down the stretch.’’

Remarkably, Orlando improved to 17-1 when they are either tied or leading after three quarters.

The Magic, 2-1 on a six-game, 12-day road trip that is their longest of the season, won’t have long to savor their victory. A night after taking down the Lakers, the Magic will be back in action on Thursday at Staples Center to face off against the Los Angeles Clippers (28-13). Coming into Wednesday, five teams had played the Clippers and Lakers (or vice-versa) on a back-to-back in L.A. and they were 1-9 in those games. Not only that, but seven of those defeats have been by double digits and the losses have been by an average of 19.2 points per game.

That all changed on Wednesday when Orlando did the unthinkable and whipped a Lakers squad that hadn’t lost since Christmas Day to the cross-town Clippers.

The Clippers have given the Magic fits for years and will come into Thursday with an 11-game winning streak over Orlando. The Magic last beat the Clippers on Nov. 6 of 2013. They have lost six straight to the Lakers in Los Angeles – a skid that dates back to January of 2013.

``Same locker, same locker room (on Thursday) and we’ve got the Clip Show and it’ll be another hard-fought game,’’ said Gordon, who will be matched up with reigning NBA champion Kawhi Leonard on Thursday. ``We can’t get too high and can’t get too low and we’ll just play the game.’’

The Lakers were also without a key piece as superstar forward Anthony Davis missed his fourth straight game with a back injury. L.A. came into Wednesday 3-0 in Davis’ absence.

Quinn Cook scored 22 points and made four 3-pointers for the Lakers, while Troy Daniels (17 points and four 3-pointers) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (17 points and 3-pointers). Most of those open looks were set up by the passing of James, the four-time MVP who tied his career high with the 19 assists.

Orlando led 65-58 at the half, an advantage that might have been stunning had it not had a 20-point bulge at one point in the second quarter. The Magic scored a season-best 35 first-quarter points and then ripped off a 13-0 spurt to open the second period.

Orlando pushed its lead to its biggest of the night at 21 points at 87-66 with a 22-8. However, the Magic mustered just two points – on free throws by Gordon and Mo Bamba – over the final 6:41 of the third period. Meanwhile, the Lakers heated up from the outside and their 22-2 burst got them to within 89-88 by the start of the fourth period.

That fourth period belonged, not to James, but instead the dynamic and electrifying Fultz. Afterward, James had glowing comments about the improvement of Fultz following two rocky seasons in the NBA. Last week, when the Magic guard scored a career-best 25 points, James was one of the first nonfamily members to congratulate him. On Wednesday, he lauded the young guard for the perseverance he displayed – both in his young career and late in Wednesday’s win for Orlando.

``Confidence, opportunity and (the Magic are) confident in him,’’ said James, who was the recipient of a jarring Fultz shoulder on a layup in the guts of the game. ``He’s being given an opportunity to go out and play the game the way he grew up playing it and everything else is taking care of itself.

``I’ve been supportive of him since he was in high school, a rookie in Philly and I was supportive of his situation to this day,’’ said James, who communicates with Fultz regularly via text messages. ``I’m happy as hell for him.’’

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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