Closing one out
Countless times this season, the young Orlando Magic have seen late leads crumble, thanks in large part to their struggles with making the right play and hitting the big shot. On Wednesday night, it was the opposite for the Magic, who are looking to build some momentum heading into the long offseason.
Against the playoff-bound Chicago Bulls, the Magic looked like a team that had played together for years, trusting each other to make key plays, while forcing the Bulls into mistakes of their own. The young Magic were poised in their quest for the victory, not making the mistakes that had plagued them so many times perviously this season.
Big shot after big shot. Big stop after big stop. Whatever the Magic needed, they were able to get against Chicago, which broke the Magic's heart in one of their toughest losses of the season back in February.
Following the game, coach James Borrego talked about the team's big, emotional victory. "I'm just really proud of the group overall," he said. "The effort to stay in that game, to put ourselves in that position again in the fourth quarter to close out a situation like that, a game against a team that's playing for a lot right now.
"That was a playoff-type effort we got from Chicago tonight and we kept battling and battling, we showed out resolved, our poise," he continued. "Again, in the fourth quarter, it gets tight, we kept our poise, and didn't run from the moment. We executed out stuff, we got the stops we needed, and it was an overall team effort."
If not for three big buckets from Victor Oladipo, the Magic might not be celebrating the victory. Following a gut-check three from Nikola Mirotic, Oladipo wove his way through the Chicago defense for a layup, pulling the Magic back within one. On the team's following possession, Aaron Gordon found a wide-open Oladipo in the right corner for three, a shot the second-year guard knocked down to give the Magic a 101-99 lead. After Pau Gasol tied the game up with a pair of free throws, it was Oladipo's time to shine, taking the inbounds pass and weaving past one of the league's best defenders, Jimmy Butler, to finish a contested layup, the shot that would prove to be the game-winner.
Borrego admitted after the game that the play was drawn up for Oladipo, and he seemed pleased with his team's execution. "The play was designed to give Vic the ball. Vic made the play, obviously, there are other options that we have within a play like that in case he gets trapped or stuck, but Vic made an incredible drive. He fought through contact, finished that shot. Just an incredible effort, great execution by the five men on the floor."
Oladipo, who is a better finisher going to his right, knew the Bulls would try to force him to his left--it's what in the scouting reports, he says--but he was able to just find a way to sneak in the layup. The second-year man also said he feels as though the team is growing and getting better and leaning how to close out games.
"The last time we played this team, we were still learning how to," he said. "We're still learning now. It's not perfect, but it's progress."
Gordon, who played almost an equally large role in the game late, also talked about the team's growth late in games.
"The regular season is coming to an end, but you never want to take a loss. They were out there playing and they were competing," said the rookie. "It's a testament to us and it's a testament to out improvement as a team that we play well and we are able to win down the stretch."
Finding a way to close out a game, especially against a team of Chicago's caliber, is a welcoming sign for the young Magic. They still have room to grow and need more time and seasoning together, but Wednesday night was a step in the right direction considering all of their struggles previously in close games late.
After sitting out 18 games with a hip injury, the Magic got a much needed boost off their bench with the return of Evan Fournier. Fournier, who was expected to play in five-to-six minute spurts, played an important role for the team late, showing just how valuable he can be.
Fournier added an extra dimension that the Magic had so desperately missed with his ability to spread the floor, and to be another ball handler when needed. He was able to put pressure on the Bulls' defense, allowing Elfrid Payton and Oladipo to find ways into the lane to make the plays that the team needed down the stretch.
Coach Borrego has talked multiple times about the importance of Fournier to the team's success, and that continued following the victory. "Evan is a difference-maker for us and we've said that all along," said the interim coach. "We've missed him on the floor in his time out. I think tonight what we saw is a player that's confident. He can shoot the three, he can drive it, he can playmake, he can space away from the ball, he's a competitive defender, we trust him defensively. That's what we saw tonight."
Borrego also talked about why he chose to play Fournier in crunch time, stating that it "wasn't easy" to take out Dewayne Dedmon in favor of the Frenchman, but that the substitution gave the team extra spacing and an extra playmaker alongside Gordon. Having both Gordon and Fournier out there, along with Oladipo, Payton and Nikola Vucevic, allowed his team to switch some pick-and-rolls and it forced the Bulls to go away from their three big man lineup with Gasol, Taj Gibson and Mirotic.
Fournier said it felt "amazing" to be back, but joked that he wouldn't be able to pass the ball to his good friend Vucevic, who was giving his friend a hard time about a wide-open missed three-pointer he missed.
"It feels great, man, especially a good win against Chicago," said Fournier. "They really came to play, fighting for a spot in the playoffs. Great night, man."
After the nearly month and a half off, Fournier was pleased with how his conditioning was, crediting the team's strength and conditioning coach Bill Burgos for having him in continued great shape.
The Magic were happy to welcome Fournier back, especially considering some thought he might not return this season. With just four games remaining, it's the perfect time for Fournier to get some more game action under him and find carry some good momentum into the offseason, an important one for the franchise.