Down 11 with 5:02 to play, the Orlando Magic looked overcome, overwhelmed and underqualified to challenge the 76ers on their home court on October 20th. JJ Redick sank two free throws to give Philadephia a decided advantage in what would become a career-night off the bench for the 13-year veteran. The Magic had just suffered an anticlimactic loss to the Hornets after surprising the Heat on opening night, and on the road, it seemed the Magic stood little to no chance against one of the prohibitive favorites in the Eastern Conference.
And yet, the Magic would rattle off a 17-6 run and tie the game in spectacular fashion on Terrence Ross’ 42-foot three point shot. After trading free throws with Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon had the chance for overtime at the stripe, before missing the second attempt. The Magic fought hard for the possession and Ross’ missed triple put an end to the last ditch effort.
“So whatever, we played better,” head coach Steve Clifford said. “But that’s not what this league is about. That’s a game right there that was there to be won. There were plays to be made and you’ve got to make them.’’
Fast forward three weeks and the Magic faced a similar obstacle, down 16 to the same said 76ers with 10:51 to play in the fourth quarter. At 92-76, the 76ers looked to capitalize off of the wave of adrenaline given by their newly acquired star, Jimmy Butler.
“There is a newness, an excitement for obvious reasons,” head coach Brett Brown said. “You can feel it at shootaround. A new energy.”
At 6-8, with a horrifying upcoming gauntlet of seven teams with winning records in their next eight matchups, the Magic looked to succumb to the overwhelming odds of forfeited expectations.
And then, the improbable happened. A 21-0 run. A jump shot by Isaac, two three-pointers by Vucevic, a triple by Jerian Grant and Terrence Ross combined with three created turnovers and four missed shots by the 76ers saw the Magic climb back into what had been a foregone conclusion.
“Good win. Hard fought,” Clifford said. “Fourth quarter down, 35-19. We struggled there at end of the third. Guys didn’t hang their heads. They came back, they fought hard. It’s a good win.”
“We kept fighting for the whole game,” Magic center Nikola Vucevic reiterated. “They’re a very good team, they just made a big trade, we knew they were going to be fired up, but we just stayed poised for 48 minutes and it was a great team win, great effort.”
It’s been difficult to know what to expect from the Magic in what has been a seesaw season of shifting calculations. Wins against Miami and Boston before a four-game losing streak was then followed by a dominant performance on the road against San Antonio. But Wednesday night’s victory proved one thing: the Magic are developing a resiliency and an expectation that these games belong to them.
”I want us as a team to grow to the place where we expect to beat the best teams in this league,” Jonathan Isaac proclaimed. “Because we will be one of the best teams in this league when we put it together. “
After missing ten days with an ankle injury, Isaac proved pivotal in the Magic’s come from behind victory. With four of the Magic’s 21 points on the run and three rebounds, Isaac’s tenacity and length in the paint led to a shocking, game-altering block of All-Star big man and trash talking extraordinaire, Joel Embiid.
Aaron Gordon spoke on the spectacular play:
”Just the challenge alone. It takes a lot of courage to take somebody on when they come down the lane like that. So that was a big-time play for us. Play of the game. “
Perhaps the player of the game, Nikola Vucevic, once again did his best to mitigate Embiid’s effect early and often, holding him to 2/13 on two-point shots, though Embiid would go 4/7 from three. Vucevic combined his high threshold scoring (30 points) with efficiency (10/19), aggressiveness defensively (two steals), and pinpoint passing in the paint.
”Vuc to me is a handful because he’s gonna score in the post,” Clifford continued. “He’s a terrific decision maker, passer. People don’t realize it yet. Defensively, he’s been very good.”
But the fulcrum for clutch scoring who is completely changing the perspective of the Magic’s place in the Eastern Conference Standings is their leading shotmaker:
”He’s (Ross) a shot maker, and even when he doesn’t make, he creates space on the floor for everyone else. He had seven defensive rebounds. He’s been very physical in his positioning all season long.” - Clifford
”He’s been shooting great, big, big shots. When you’ve got a guy going like that, it gives you so much offensively. Being able to shoot the ball, cut, get to the rim. It gives our second unit a huge boost and not only that, he’s been great defensively. He’s been great for us, and hopefully, he can keep it up.” - Jonathan Isaac
”We got a lot of firepower, a lot of guys that can play, a lot of guys that care about winning.” - Aaron Gordon
The Magic had high expectations for the swingman when they acquired him from Toronto, and are finally reaping the benefits of one of the league’s most impressive bench scorers. Ross, having missed 58 games last season due to a sprained medial collateral ligament and a non-displaced fracture in his right tibial plateau, has scored in the double digits in all but four of the Magic’s 15 games.
Ross spreads the floor in a variety of ways for the Magic. In addition to the cutting mentioned above, and the three-point eFG rate of 59% and 39% shooting on 89 shots, Ross is an expert in the midrange game, firing an absurd 57% from 16 feet to the three-point line.
Even more impressive, he makes shots when it matters most, improving his three-point shooting to 45% in the final three minutes of quarters.
The Orlando Magic are shifting their perspective towards the end of games as defined result. Vucevic gives the steady hand, Aaron Gordon the two-way intensity, and Ross closes with the game-winning buckets when the Magic need them most. The Magic are creating a formula for enduring success. Steve Clifford has made it clear to the players, the media and the fans that the kid gloves are off. The Magic have an excellent team made of players capable of winning, and it’s time for those results to translate. Not tomorrow, today.
The Magic face a brutal stretch over the next two weeks with matchups against the Warriors, Blazers, Lakers and Nuggets, among others. Six of their next seven opponents have seven wins or more, but Aaron Gordon is preaching the long game:
”Got to stay even-keeled. Can’t get too high, can’t get too low. Stereotypical line, but we gotta come hungry, ready to work.”
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