The Orlando Magic could have wilted against the Los Angeles Clippers as the NBA title contenders erased a 19-point lead, but they didn't: Orlando picked up its third straight win Wednesday by gutting it out in the fourth quarter, earning a 98-90 triumph.
Nik Vučević led all players with 30 points and 21 rebounds, including the clinching foul shots, as Orlando claimed the upset.
The Magic more than held their own against the Clippers in the first quarter, limiting the league's best offense to 20 points on 10-of-26 (38.5 percent) shooting, with no three-pointers and five turnovers. Apart from three pull-up jumpers by Chris Paul from the left elbow, the Clippers found themselves without a sustainable source of offense.
More impressively, the Magic never trailed in the first quarter, even building their lead to 11 points on two occasions. A three-pointer by Victor Oladipo gave the Magic a nine-point edge at the 2:38 mark. The teams went scoreless for nearly the next two full minutes before Maurice Harkless split a pair of defenders off the dribble, drove into Blake Griffin's chest, and banked in a floater, an impressive play that he could not have made in his rookie year.
Reserve guard Jamal Crawford helped rally the Clippers in the second period, using his creative handle to free himself for jumpers. Even if he missed, he could rely on his reputation and experience to draw fouls even from the outside, as he went 4-of-4 from the foul line in the period. Paul fed Griffin inside--he had slipped just inside Vučević--at the 5:43 mark for a layup to get L.A. to within single digits on the sort of hoop that has the potential to ignite a big scoring run, but Oladipo answered with his second three-pointer of the half on the Magic's next trip.
Ultimately, the Magic managed to rack up points in the first half despite only having three made threes and two free throws because they attacked the Clippers' defense off the dribble and tested L.A.'s rim protection. The Clippers failed that test: Orlando shot 16-of-21 in the painted area in the first half, for 32 of their 57 points, building a 15-point lead on the championship-contending visitors.
Orlando set a defensive tone early against L.A., blocking two dunk attempts in the first quarter alone. By walling off the paint, the Magic forced the Clippers to shoot from the outside. And while Orlando lucked out in terms of three-point defense--the Clippers went 0-of-8 before halftime--the real victory was limiting the visitors' volume. Against the league's most efficient offense, the Magic took away the two most efficient shots: the three-pointer and the dunk. That's an impressive feat.
An improbable turnaround jumper from Jason Maxiell over Griffin's outstretched hand pushed Orlando's lead to 19 points in the early stages of the second half, but L.A. responded with its most inspired stretch of ball on the night, going on a 29-5 run over the next eight-plus minutes to take a five-point lead. Former Magic guard J.J. Redick, who missed five of his seven shots in the first half, recovered by scoring 12 points during the run and recording two assists on passes to Griffin.
Griffin himself was the biggest catalyst for L.A.'s third-quarter offensive dominance, as the jumpers he missed in the first half availed themselves to him in the second.
Were it not for the comprehensive ineptitude of Byron Mullens, the Magic may have faed a significant deficit at the end of the third period. However, he helped Orlando by offering no resistance on a Vučević post-up, which Vučević converted into a layup; committed a moving screen on L.A.'s next possession; and then goaltended a Jameer Nelson layup attempt one play later. Orlando was thus fortunate to only trail by two points when the period closed.
Some fireworks reputed less than two minutes into the fourth quarter when Mullens got tangled up with Andrew Nicholson after Nicholson attempted a triple in front of L.A.'s bench. Mullens took out Nicholson's follow-through with his hard close-out and sent Nicholson tumbling to the floor; the officials did not call a foul on the play. Nicholson and Mullens started shoving one another as they made their way up the floor, and a Mullens shove sent Nicholson to the floor again. The referees called Nicholson for a technical foul and, upon review, rung up Mullens as well.
The second-year power forward would rally Orlando later in the period, hitting a jumper to bring his club to within a point of the visitors at the 7:56 mark and then tying the game with a turnaround hook shot in traffic on Orlando's next possession. E`Twaun Moore then reclaimed the lead for the Magic with a wide-open three from the top of the arc with 6:43 to go.
Vučević finished a beautiful feed from Nelson out of the pick-and-roll at the 2:38 mark to see-saw Orlando back into the lead, 88-87, but Griffin responded two possessions later with a long two-point jumper. Arron Afflalo, who opened the game with back-to-back post-up scores against Redick, nailed a difficult fadeaway over Jared Dudley to answer Griffin's basket with 1:47 to go.
Vučević, dominant all game long, drained one of the more important baskets of his career with 1:04 to go, catching a Nelson pass on the right wing and draining the open 16-footer to put Orlando up three points on the visitors. He pumped his right fist in exultation afterward as the Clippers called timeout. Afflalo stripped Paul after the timeout and Nelson drew a foul on the Clippers' point guard as he advanced the ball; the below-capacity crowd at Amway Center was on its feet and chanting "Let's go Magic!" as Orlando tried to run its next play, but a stagnant set had coach Jacque Vaughn at midcourt screaming for a timeout with 40.9 seconds to go and seven seconds on the shot clock.
Vaughn got the switch one assumes he wanted--Jordan defending Afflalo on the perimeter--out of the timeout, but L.A.'s defender defended him stoutly and deflected the shot as it left his hands. Redick's tying three-point try drew iron, and the Magic wisely fouled Jordan--a 44 percent free-throw shooter--on the rebound to send him to the line. He split the pair of foul shots, with Vučević rebounding the miss for his 19th carom of the night. Vučević drained a pair of foul shots to put Orlando up four and then rebounded Paul's driving layup attempt with 17.5 to go. He would go on to hit four more foul shots to provide the final margin.