Guard Evan Fournier, who is at the center of numerous rumors circulating the league as the NBA’s Trade Deadline approaches tomorrow, converted a layup with 6.4 seconds remaining to help the Orlando Magic secure a 112-111 win over the Phoenix Suns Wednesday night.
Nikola Vucevic led all scorers with 27 points to go along with 14 rebounds, and rookie Chuma Okeke scored a career-high 17 points, shooting a perfect 6 for 6 from the field.
“I thought every guy that played competed hard,” Magic coach Steve Clifford told reporters after the game. “I told my assistants during the second to last timeout, we deserve to win this game.”
Phoenix’s All-Star backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker combined for 12 of the Suns first 17 points - all coming within the game’s first five minutes.
Booker had it going early, knocking down six of his first nine shots. Twelve of his 25 points came in the opening period, but the game took a turn with 2:44 left in the first quarter when the sixth-year guard picked up his second foul.
Booker to the bench coincided with a 20-10 Magic run to open the second quarter, drawing Orlando even with Phoenix after they built an early double-digit lead. Fournier led the way early for the Magic, burying his first four attempts from the floor.
Orlando’s starting shooting guard scored 11 points in the first half, which was topped only by the brilliance of Okeke. The 22 year-old forward made all three of his three point attempts in the first half, leading all scorers in the game with 14 points at intermission (5-5 from the field).
“(It) lets me know that I am capable,” Okeke said after the game when asked about what a performance like he had tonight can do for his confidence. “Capable of doing these things, hitting these shots, and making plays.”
CHUMA GOIN BAAAAACK TO BAACK! @chuma_okeke with a new career-high 14 points!!— FOX Sports Magic (@FOXSportsMagic) March 25, 2021
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The Magic were able to shoot their way back in the game (10 made three-point field goals in the first half), but the Suns countered with a 13-4 run to open the third quarter that helped Phoenix rebuild a double-digit lead.
After a relatively quiet first half, Vucevic went to work in the third quarter, scoring 10 of his 27 points in the period. A flurry of Vucevic paint conversions, followed by consecutive field goals at the rim off one-on-one drives from Dwayne Bacon, forced the Suns to take a timeout with just under three minutes remaining in the third.
A balanced three-headed Phoenix offensive attack - consisting of Paul, Booker, and Deandre Ayton - powered the Suns in the second half, but the Magic stayed connected thanks to superior play from their bench.
“No question, I would say one of the biggest keys,” Clifford said when asked about the play from his bench Wednesday. “That’s been an area - I think a lot because of our injuries - that we haven’t developed cohesive playing groups, and so the bench scoring has been sporadic (and T-Ross was out tonight). But tonight, those two guys (Okeke and Bacon) were very good.”
The game was tied with just over four minutes remaining when Michael Carter-Williams, who was in foul trouble for a majority of the contest, followed his own miss and converted the offensive rebound at the rim (plus the foul). A turnaround jumper by Vucevic (over his right shoulder off a double-team) put Orlando up by five.
After four straight points from Paul, a Fournier jumper from the right baseline put the Magic up by three points. The Suns answered with a three-point field goal from Jae Crowder, who was wide open on the left wing after his man (Okeke) helped onto Booker.
Vucevic split two free throws with 27 seconds remaining in the game, and the Suns came right back at the Magic with two free throws from Booker after he was fouled driving down the lane (to put them up by one).
Clifford opted not to call timeout with his team down, instead choosing to leave the ball in the hands of Fournier. That proved to be the correct decision, as Fournier used a screen from Vucevic to drive to his right down the lane, finishing a tough runner over two defenders to put the Magic up a point with just over six seconds remaining.
Booker was unable to get off a clean look on Phoenix’s final offensive possession, thanks partly to the ball denial and tough man-to-man defense from Fournier, as well as help defense along the baseline from Vucevic.
“Scoring points is better than getting stops, (I mean) I’m sorry,” Fournier jokingly said when asked about which play he was more proud of (the game winning shot, or the game winning stop). “Both are great, but scoring a basket - if I had to pick - I would definitely pick that.”
Ayton finished with 21 points and 9 rebounds for the Suns, and Paul finished with 23 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds.
The night belonged to Fournier, who very well could have been playing in pinstripes for the last time Wednesday night. Fournier will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and Magic brass may elect to try and move Fournier rather than lose him without any kind of compensation.
“I’ve been here for seven years. I had a son here, I got married (here),” an emotional Fournier told reporters after the game when asked about the city of Orlando. “It means more than a lot (to me) because it’s kind of hard to put words into it. I got traded here when I was 21. Now I’m a totally different man. I’m a totally different player.”
The Magic will take the floor again Friday night against the Portland Trail Blazers. The only question remaining is, who will still be on the team when that game is played?