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Magic 104, Heat 99: Second half adjustments propel Orlando to crucial victory

Vucevic and Co. are leaving Miami with a W and the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed

NBA: Orlando Magic at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

A game on the road? The second night of a back-to-back? Chris Bosh’s jersey retirement ceremony? The reincarnation of the ‘06 NBA Finals officiating crew, reunited in the fourth quarter with their old pal Dwyane Wade? All of it was no problem for your Orlando Magic, now in sole possession of the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.

It took less than five minutes for Miami to race out to a 14-5 lead, built on the back of decisive drives to the hoop and a zone defense that stymied the Magic’s rhythm. Orlando looked tentative at both ends of the floor, with Jonathan Isaac in particular appearing a little overwhelmed by the moment. The Heat dared him to shoot from distance, sagging off into help position and taking the paint away from Nikola Vucevic. It was a gambit that worked to good effect, with Isaac going 0-4 from deep and Vooch failing to establish an early presence.

A Steve Clifford timeout helped the Magic momentarily regroup. DJ Augustin and Vucevic were able to steady the ship on offense, working a couple of nice two-man sets for buckets that broke the zone. Defensively the team was a little more locked in, meeting Miami with more resistance at the hoop and taking away the driving lanes from the perimeter. However, it all came undone during the frame’s final minutes. Poor shooting, sloppy execution and a riotous Miami run saw them rattle off 12 straight points to close the period. Ultimately Orlando shot just 27% from the field for the quarter, including an ice cold 2-12 from downtown. It was 32-18 after one.

The start of the second initially looked like a worrying continuation of how the first finished. To Orlando’s credit they again stabilized, taking some of the pace off the game and tightening the screws on defense. A 10-0 run, sparked by back-to-back triples from Augustin and Terrence Ross, closed the gap to six and had the Magic firmly back in the contest. However, as they had done all half, Miami responded with a short burst of their own, pushing the deficit back to double figures after a thunderous Derrick Jones Jr. dunk and a Dion Waiters triple.

The last few minutes of the half felt like a make-or-break moment. The opportunity to claim real ascendancy was there for Miami, but to Orlando’s credit they stuck with it and made just enough shots to keep the margin to single figures. It was also a redemptive stretch for Isaac, who finally got a jumper to go while also coming up with an enormous swat on a Bam Adebayo dunk attempt. Despite shooting just 32% from the floor and coughing up an uncharacteristically high 8 turnovers the Magic were still within striking distance, down 51-42 at the break.

It was evident from the outset of the third that offensively the game plan had shifted a little. The Magic went inside on the second half’s first two possessions, coming away with a Gordon dunk. This helped to create a little more space and opportunity for the outside shooters, with Isaac, Augustin and Fournier all obliging and nailing early triples. Isaac in particular was noticeably more confident, hauling in rebounds, causing deflections and moving assertively on offense. His second triple for the quarter gave the Magic their first lead of the game, while his third pushed them out by four, 69-65. Some smart play to close the quarter meant the Magic would head into the final period with a 76-70 lead.

The fourth quarter started well but quickly turned into the Dwyane Wade throwback memorial. He had 10 points in a two-and-a-half minute span, including some big makes and friendly whistles that threatened to wrest momentum away from the Magic entirely. To the team’s credit they steadied, getting some huge contributions from Khem Birch as they took the lead back after a pair of Josh Richardson free throws briefly tied proceedings. Throw in another phenomenal block by Isaac and a make from deep by Vucevic and all of a sudden the lead was 7 with a shade under six minutes to play.

The cruelties of sport are well known, and one sequence late in the ball game threatened to bring this into stark focus for the Magic. Gordon, fouled on his way to the hoop, inexplicably saw the lead official overruled and the call changed to a travel. With the three-point play taken away Orlando were then forced to watch Jones Jr. commit a clear travel on his way to the hoop, only for the whistles to be swallowed. It was the type of circumstance that could have deflated a team and swung momentum.

Yet the Magic didn’t break. They dug in defensively and denied the Heat anything easy, while their All-Star big man calmly got them the buckets they needed on offense to create some separation. Some Dion Waiters tomfoolery kept things interesting late, but a parade of trips to the free throw line iced the game for the Magic. When all was said and done they had made the adjustments necessary to erase the early 17 point deficit, ultimately prevailing 104-99.

Orlando’s three stars

Hockey is a pretty great sport, so I thought I would steal one of its best little touches for my own game analysis: the three stars. Here is who caught my eye tonight.

First star: Nikola Vucevic — Hey, he’s an All-Star, have you heard? It took the Magic a little while to get the big guy going, but when they did he was phenomenal. 24, 16 and 5, along with some absolutely clutch buckets when they were needed.

Second star: Jonathan Isaac — Redemption inside of 48 minutes. Isaac was enormous during the second half, particularly during his blistering third quarter run. He finished with 19, 6, 2 enormous blocks, and a monstrous confidence boost.

Third star: DJ Augustin — He didn’t shoot the ball fantastically, but he was the calming presence the Magic so sorely needed when it felt like things might be slipping away. Was money at the line to close proceedings.

The playoff push remains in full effect! This was a big win for a club desperate to make the postseason, and could yet be the thing to catapult them to a first round series. The remaining schedule will be difficult, but as we’ve been saying for a while, if the Magic are good enough they’ll get there. Tonight proved that they might just be up for the challenge.