Holding a 25 point lead, against a reeling Washington Wizards team, things seemed like they’d be a walk in the park for the Orlando Magic on Friday night.
Then, the Wizards, led by the dynamic backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal made a furious comeback, cutting the Magic’s lead down to one with 2:30 to play. It was like a bad nightmare for the Magic, who held multiple double-digit leads against the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night before ultimately falling late.
Friday night was a different story, as the Magic showed a resiliency that they’ve desperately missed over the past few year.
“It says everything,” said Steve Clifford when asked about his team finishing after blowing the lead. “Those guys have been good in those situations. There’s no lead in this league that’s safe, and they had a lot of firepower on the floor. . . It showed good poise and Vuc had a couple of big postup baskets in that stretch too.”
A one dribble step back from D.J. Augustin, off a pass from a rolling Nikola Vucevic, saw the Magic lead jump back up to four. A strong contest from Vucevic on a Wall drive led to a rapid outlet to Augustin, who found Terrence Ross floating through the air for an alley oop layup to give the Magic a six point lead, one they wouldn’t relinquish.
Coming off a tough loss on Wednesday night, it was good for the Magic to bounce back, and hold onto a game that they controlled throughout.
“It was big for us,” said Vucevic when asked how satisfying it was to be able to close out the win. “When you build a big lead like that, you have to be able to close out games. It’s very important in this league, especially for a team like us. We’re trying to get some wins. Games like this, we can’t drop those.
“On Wednesday, it was a tough loss for us. Tonight we did a better job, although, the end of third and in the fourth we should’ve done a better job of closing out the game in an easier way. They’re a great team, and we knew they were going to make a push. We could’ve still done a better job at certain things, but we won. Just have to get better and keep improving.”
Seeing the lead dwindle shows the Magic still have a long way to go, but their ability to make the plays when it matter late was a welcoming sign for a team that, overall, has struggled in those moments in recent years.
While Augustin and Vucevic made big plays late, it was their overall team effort that helped them secure the victory on Friday night. Seven players finished in double figures, led by Vucevic’s 21. Aaron Gordon, who turned his ankle in the fourth quarter but still finished the game, put together one of his best all-around performances, finishing with 20 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
The bench, which was atrocious on Wednesday night, played a huge role, with Mo Bamba, Jerian Grant and Ross all finishing in double figures with 15, 13 and 12 respectively. It was the second unit in the first half that helped the Magic grow their lead, and pull away from a Washington team that was discombobulated for much of the night.
“Night and day to me,” said Clifford when asked about the difference in bench play from Wednesday night. “Particularly in the first half I thought [they were] really, really good. I thought, both ends of the floor, offensively and defensively.”
Bamba, who’s shown flashes of his potential throughout the early portion of the season, showed off more, incorporating a dribble step-back he’s been working on, as well as some smooth shots in the flow of the offense.
From the start, the Magic seemed like the far superior team, and it showed on Friday night. While they blew a big lead, which is a discouraging sign, their ability to finish out the game, and show the poise that they needed to to finish it off, is an equally as welcoming sign.
Things don’t get any easier for the Magic, as they head out for a back-to-back in New York and Washington on Sunday and Monday, before finishing a grueling stretch of eight games in 13 days on Wednesday against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Still, they’re beginning to show signs of improvement, and a win like they had on Friday night, could go a long way as they continue to strive for their long-term goals.