The Orlando Magic have become accustomed to playing in close games. Through 52 games, the Magic had played in 21 games decided by six points or less, and seven overtime games. Friday night pushed their overtime number eight, and games decided by six or more to 22.
Needless to say, the Magic have had their fair share of close calls this season.
Friday night's come from behind victory over the Dallas Mavericks improved the young bunch to 8-14 in those games. While they've had more struggles in those close games than they'd like, Friday night's win was a sign of progress for a Magic bunch that has been reeling since the turn of the new year.
After jumping all over the lifeless Mavs early, the Magic saw their 21 point lead quickly evaporate, thanks in large part to red hot shooting from the visitors. Dallas caught fire from beyond the arc, and quickly eliminated the Magic's lead, even taking a 14 point lead of their own in the second half. Things were looking bleak for a Magic bunch desperately in need of a win to get their second half off to a good start.
Then the fourth quarter rolled around.
Down by nine thanks to a late third quarter run, the Magic turned it up on the defensive end, getting into Mavs players and forcing them into tougher shots. With their defense surging, Orlando's offense lagged back, with the team finding good, quality looks on many possessions, with the ball falling aimlessly off the rim much of the time.
When it mattered, however, the Magic found big buckets.
Down by nine with half the quarter to go, three jumpers from Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Victor Oladipo finally dropped, with the bunch capping off their run with a steal and layup from Mario Hezonja. Suddenly the Magic found themselves down just one and with the momentum on their side.
That momentum helped them hold the Mavs to 11 points over the final nearly 12 minutes of game time. Needless to say, it was Orlando's defense that turned things around and won them the game.
"We were still digging in on the defensive end and getting stops (despite shots not falling consistently)," said coach Scott Skiles. "We have several guys that had really good defensive games tonight."
One of those players was Aaron Gordon. Gordon, who was known for his defensive prowess coming out of Arizona, was tasked with guarding the, generally, tough-to-guard Dirk Nowitzki. And Gordon did so, and did so exceptionally well, especially in one of the key moments of the game.
With the game tied, Dallas turned to their mainstay to try and get them the win in regulation. Gordon wasn't going to let that happen, however, staying with the sure-fire Hall of Famer and forcing him into a tough miss.
Coach Skiles was pleased with the job his second-year power forward did against the veteran. "Aaron, I thought, was exceptional tonight on the defensive end," said the Magic's first-year head man. "Dirk is so clever and Aaron is still a young player, so Dirk's made a career out of not only being a great player, but tricking people with pump fakes and stepping into them and stepping back, things like that. Aaron had really good discipline and held his own."
Being able to defend Nowtzki, and have success, is tough for even the best defenders in the league. For a player in his second season to do so, and do so at such a high level is impressive, and one of the big reasons the Magic were able to come away victorious on Friday night.
"Really it's about fighting him for position before he gets the ball," said Gordon. "Zaza [Pachulia] set a crazy screen on me there at the end. You've got to get around that to get to him and then if he makes the shot, he makes the shot. All you can do is contes the best that you can, obstruct his vision by contesting on the ball."
If the Magic are going to continue their wining ways, they're going to have to keep bringing it on the defensive end like they did on Friday night. Despite the Mavs shooting nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc, the Magic played some of their best defense they have since the turn of the new year.
Victor Oladipo, who played a big role despite not shooting the ball well, said the team knows they have to be able to bring it on that end every night if they want to keep winning games.
For the Magic, their success, not only in close games, but games where they hold big leads, will ultimately come down to how they play on the defensive end. Should they play like they did on Friday night, they could find themselves in the playoffs come seasons end. Should they play like they had in the previous month before that, and they'll be looking at yet another lottery pick come June.