Having played in their fair share of close games this season -- they've been in 12 games decided by five points or fewer -- the Orlando Magic have needed to find someone who they can go to late for a big bucket. In previous seasons, that player was Tobias Harris, who hit three game-winning shots in his first two-plus years with the team. This season, however, they've looked to another one of their versatile swingmen to do the damage late in games.
Evan Fournier, who has ranked among the Magic's best players all year, has quickly stepped into the role of go-to guy in late-game situations. It's a role Fournier has thrived in, hitting big shots, or making the right pass to help his team win games that they likely would've lost in previous years.
Having the ball in his hands late has made Fournier all that more dangerous in his fourth season. In the final five minutes of games where Orlando is up or down five points, Fournier is shooting 53.6 percent from the field and 53.8 percent from beyond the arc. Those numbers jump to 59.1 and 66.7 percent, respectively, with three minutes to go and the scoring margin between five points. All of those numbers lead the team among players who have started and closed games consistently this season.
Moreover, the Magic have shown a willingness to continue to go back to Fournier, who has hit game-winning or -sealing shots in a handful of games this season. Most recently, Fournier hit a running layup against the Houston Rockets to clinch a victory, and was the talk of the locker room following the game.
Orlando coach Scott Skiles said that Fournier made the right play in the end, after the Rockets were able to snuff out the action the Magic were trying to run with Fournier and Nikola Vucevic. "They took us out of a little bit of what we were trying to get to," said Skiles. "He did what you should do: put the ball on the floor and try to make a play. See if you can score, or get fouled, don't settle for a terrible jump shot, anything like that. He was able to get the ball to go in."
When the play breaks down like it did against the Rockets, having someone like Fournier, who is seemingly always calm and poised late in games, is huge. "That's what makes the difference," said Fournier. "You can't be focused on what's going on with the other team. You have to do your work and make the right play."
Fournier has also earned the trust of his teammates. Harris said that the team knows the swingman will make good plays. "We know he can score. He can shoot it from three, he can drive, and he's a guy we look to get the ball to in the end, in the fourth quarter, to create off the dribble. He's been really great for us in the fourth quarter."
"We're really confident [with the ball in his hands late]," said Nikola Vucevic, one of Fournier's closest friends on the team. "He's made a lot of big plays for us. He's made some really big shots this year, then tonight again he made a big play at the end."
While Vucevic went on to say that the team is unique because they all trust each other equally late in games, it's clear that Fournier is the guy they want to have the ball with the ability to make the play late. His 6-foot-7 frame allows him to see over defenses with relative ease, and his ability to both shoot and score off the dribble adds another dimension to an already hard-to-guard player.
He's having the best season of his young career so far, and having earned the trust of his teammates and coaches late in games means a lot. "I just try to make the right decision," said Fournier, who more often than not, does just that.
As the Magic continue to transition out of their rebuilding phase, finding a closer was all too important for a team who plays in so many close games. While they have shown a willingness to go to other players -- Vucevic hit a game-winner against the Los Angeles Lakers, and Victor Oladipo has been given the ball late in close games as well -- Fournier has proven to be their best option, and will likely remain that moving forward.