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Magic 122, Hornets 114: The Orlando Magic book a date in the North

Terrence Ross erupts into flames to lead the Magic to the seventh seed

NBA: Orlando Magic at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

It’s official: your Orlando Magic are the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed. They claimed it on the back of a hard-fought win, overcoming the adversity of late withdrawals by both Nikola Vucevic and Jonathan Isaac as well as another 40+ point game from noted Magic-killer, Kemba Walker. Let’s look at how this one unfolded.

It was a sluggish start to the game for the Magic, which was to be expected considering the faces missing from the lineup. It became evident early that the plan was to funnel the offense through Aaron Gordon with Vooch absent, a strategy that delivered only limited returns. AG was aggressive, but converted only 1 of 3 shots while also committing a turnover. It also meant that things bogged down elsewhere, with limited ball movement and a lot of players remaining stationary. It seemed like points were going to be very hard to come by.

The game’s complexion shifted when, as it has so many times this season, Terrence Ross checked in. He scored 11 straight to close the quarter for the Magic, staking them to a 30-25 lead after 12 minutes of play. He was instant offense for a team in desperate need of it, while also providing energy with defensive deflections and offensive rebounds.

The T-Ross show continued in the second. He drilled another early triple, then got to the line for 3 more after drawing a foul at the top of the perimeter. He even tracked down a Michael Carter-Williams airball, effectively turning it into an alley-oop. He finished the half with 19. Elsewhere the Magic started to get contributions from DJ Augustin, who was able to effectively take advantage of any mismatches that presented themselves, and Wes Iwundu, who drilled an open three, added a couple of hustle scores, and even chipped in 4 assists for good measure.

However, after pushing the lead to as many as 13 with a shade over 4 minutes to play in the quarter, the Magic watched as Kemba Walker almost single handedly wiped away their advantage. He started to get into the lane at will, either deftly finishing his own drives or dishing off for teammates rolling to the hoop. A deep three in the half’s final minute gave him 22 at the main break, with the Magic holding a slim 62-58 lead.

The teams largely traded buckets across the first 4 minutes of the third quarter, with Gordon accounting for 7 of Orlando’s first 8 points. He was finding shots in the rhythm of the offense and via effort and opportunity, a contrast to his early contributions. Still, the team hadn’t figured out how to slow down Walker, who continued to dance into the lane with little resistance. A mid-range floater from Charlotte’s All-Star point guard forced a Magic time out, their lead precariously cut to 2.

Gordon and Fournier helped Orlando stabilize as the quarter continued, both finishing some tough shots that created a little space on the scoreboard. Fournier had a pretty and-one, while Gordon threw down a monstrous putback off a Fournier miss from the corner. When DJ Augustin started cooking -- an absurd up and under layup with the shot clock expiring, followed by back-to-back triples -- things were starting to look pretty healthy. Still, the defense remained a concern as Charlotte players were able to both get into the lane and find open shooters spotting up, a potentially fatal combination.

Entering the final frame it was 97-88 in favour of the Magic, a nice cushion against a team whose chance at the postseason was slipping away based on other results. It took Kemba Walker all of three-and-a-half minutes to cut it to just 2, and it was starting to look like he might simply be unstoppable.

Then Terrence Ross happened.

First he drilled a three. On the next possession he put the ball on the floor and got an easy layup on an aggressive drive. He followed that up with another deep triple, before capping the spurt with an absurd final long distance make that probably could have been an and-one. He took a close game and simply made sure of the outcome. It was a game-winning performance.

From this point the Magic played smart basketball, dialing up the defensive intensity and consistently making patient plays on offense. They moved the ball well, locating mismatches and open players cutting to the hoop. A thunderous dunk from Khem Birch signaled that the end was nigh, and when Gordon simply overpowered his man on a backdown and hammer finish it was basically done and dusted. When the final buzzer sounded it was 122-114 to the Magic, confirmed owners of a winning season record (42-40) and the seventh seed when the playoffs open this weekend.

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: Terrence Ross — Who else? The Human Torch finished with a season-high 35 points and 6 rebounds, with 6 makes from deep. He saved the game for the Magic twice, and has now set himself on a collision course with his former team in Round One. A great game to close a great regular season.

Second star: Aaron Gordon — It was a shaky opening quarter, but ultimately he rose to the occasion. More was asked of him on offense with Vucevic sitting, and when he found his groove he was a difference-maker. He finished with 27, 7 and 2 on 11-18 shooting.

Third star: DJ Augustin — Man, this guy. He’s been dismissed or overlooked so many times throughout his career, that to be such a valuable contributor for a playoff-bound team feels somewhat surreal. He continued his season’s stellar play tonight, finishing with 18 points and a much needed third-quarter spurt that kept the Magic in it just when they threatened to falter.

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It’s been one hell of a season. The best part is that it’s not over yet. Bring on the dinosaurs.