SACRAMENTO – While discussing ways for his Orlando Magic to be better over the final 42 games than they have been in a somewhat rocky first 40 games of the season, head coach Steve Clifford candidly pinpointed the need for improvement from forward Aaron Gordon.
Gordon, Clifford said, could very well hold the key to a bright Magic future if he can stay healthy and get back to being the highly productive two-way player that he’s been at times in the past.
On Monday, Gordon returned from another injury and showed his worth to the Magic with some steady play. Then, when the Magic absolutely, positively needed him most, Gordon converted arguably the Magic’s biggest shot of the season.
With the Magic down one and just 15.8 seconds remaining, Gordon flashed to the middle of the floor, took a pass from Evan Fournier and finished a short shot through contact. Gordon’s ensuring free throw with 1.1 seconds gave Orlando a much-needed 114-112 defeat of the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center.
“I was going to rebound because Evan was shooting that thing, man,’’ Gordon said of his initial thoughts on the game-winning play. “I thought Evan was going to shoot it, but he made a great play. I was just ready. It was a good pass, I turned and just put in on the rim and it went in.’’
Sacramento (15-25) heaved the ball inbounds, but Harrison Barnes’ attempt with five-tenths of a second remaining was off the mark. Orlando (19-21) snapped a five-game losing streak to the Kings and a three-year skid in Sacramento.
Orlando appeared to be on the verge of suffering its second, final-minute collapse in a matter of three nights. The Magic saw a four-point lead with 58.1 seconds remaining turn into a 98-94 loss in Phoenix on Friday. On Monday, the Magic led 111-104 with 1:17 to play, but their turnovers combined with supreme shot-making by Sacramento had them staring up at a 112-111 deficit with 15.8 seconds to play.
On the final play, Clifford drew up a dribble-hand-off play for Fournier, but the Kings’ defense thwarted that play design. Fournier, the hero of so many wins in recent years with his shot-making late in games, got to the free throw line and went up as to shoot the ball before finding the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Gordon in the middle of the paint. Gordon didn’t hesitate and scored as he was fouled by guard Cory Joseph.
“I was literally about to shoot, and I saw A.G. like this (with both hands up and ready for the ball) and I had to pass it,’’ said Fournier, who finished with 25 points, 12 free throw makes and six assists.
Gordon, who was playing after missing Friday’s game because of tightness in his right calf muscle, finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and two assists in nearly 30 minutes. A native of San Jose, Calif., Gordon won in Northern California for the first time since 2016 and he had plenty of family, friends and support staff on hand to see his game-winner.
“Man, there was a ton of people here, from my adolescence,’’ said Gordon, who was recently named the Bay Area’s High School Basketball Player of the Decade by the San Jose Mercury-News and someone who will have his jersey retired later this week by Archbishop Mitty High School. “From my AAU coach, to my agent, to my middle school coaches, sports psychologists … just a ton of people. I’ve got a lot of love out here in Cali. It was just nice to get a win for the people that I love.’’
Gordon has developed quite an admiration for the tough-love approach from Clifford, a coach he has played for the last two seasons in Orlando.
“Coach and I have developed a really good relationship,’’ Gordon said. “We’re continued to develop it each day and learn more about each other. He trusts me to make the right play and he trusts me with the ball in my hands. And, with that, I’ve got to live up to that responsibility.
“I know the better I play, the better our team is going to be,’’ said Gordon, who is averaging 13.2 points and 7.6 rebounds a game despite missing time on three instances with ankle, Achilles and calf injuries. “We’ve got a ton of ball players on this team and I’m going to get back to playing the way that I know how to play out there. I’m going to get back to being myself and it’s going to work out.’’
Orlando led by as much as 17 points in a hot-shooting first half and it mustered just enough offense to turn away Sacramento (15-25) in a second half that grew tense. Vucevic did most of the heavy lifting in the early going with his 26 points and 15 rebounds, but it was Fournier who saved the Magic late by scoring eight of his 25 points in the fourth quarter.
The Magic led by 13 points at the half, but they saw that lead trimmed to one by the start of the fourth period. Orlando had all kinds of trouble defensively trying to contain power forward Nemanja Bjelica, who had a career-best 34 points and made eight of 10 3-point shots. De’Aaron Fox added 31 points and 10 assists for the Kings, who shot 51.1 percent from the floor.
Orlando shot 43.5 percent, but it made nine 3-pointers and connected on 25 of 30 free throws.
Fultz played well throughout for the Magic and finished with 16 points.
The Magic were playing for the first time since Friday night when they suffered a heartbreaking 98-94 loss to Phoenix. In that game, Orlando held a four-point lead with 58.1 seconds to play, but it surrendered two Trevor Booker 3-pointers in a 17-second flurry and suffered a couple of untimely turnovers late in the night.
This time, the Magic found a way to win and that victory dramatically changed the temperature of a trip that’s about to ramp up the level of difficulty.
“When you lose, it sucks. But whether we won or lost (on Monday night), you can never get too high with a win or low with a loss, and you have to stay in that middle ground,’’ Vucevic said. “Phoenix was a tough loss, but that’s part of it, and tonight that’s how (Sacramento) feels. They had that And-one (with Fox with 15.8 seconds remaining) and we made the shot at the end and now they feel like we felt on Friday. You just move.’’
Monday’s game was the Magic’s second stop on a six-game, 12-night road trip – the longest of the season both in terms of games and days. The Magic will practice on Tuesday for what very well could be its most difficult and star-studded back-to-back set of games of the season. Orlando plays the LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday at the Staples Center and faces Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday in the same building. While the Magic won’t have to travel in between the games, they certainly will be put to the test by the firepower that the two championship contenders present.
“First, we’ve got to focus on the Lakers and obviously we’ll have to play a great game,’’ Vucevic said. “We’ll have to execute on both ends and be at our best to have a chance against a very good team.’’
Up 13 at the half, the Magic wobbled offensively and defensively in the third period, but never lost the lead. Even after a 33-21 third period by the Kings, the Magic were still able to cling to an 86-85 lead by the start of the fourth.
Sacramento hurt the Magic when Hield (10 third-quarter points) and Bagley III (eight third-quarter points) got going from the outside and inside. The Kings had 12 points in the paint in the period – several of them coming after they outraced the Magic down the floor on the break.
Orlando was dialed in and aggressive early on and held a commanding 65-52 lead at intermission. The Magic tied their season high for points in a first quarter (33) and nearly equaled their mark for most points in a first half (68) with some stellar offense over the first 24 minutes.
Vucevic dominated inside against the smaller Harry Giles and the slower Bjelica and had a double-double (15 points and 10 rebounds) by halftime. Fournier was in attack mode from the jump and he hurt the Kings in a variety of ways. Not only did he get into the paint for three layups, but he also made all eight of his free throws and repeatedly found cutters for five assists.
Other than the one time when he grabbed at the toe of his shoe to stretch out his calf muscle, Gordon showed no signs of the injury that kept him out on Friday in Phoenix. He had a 3-pointer, a driving basket and two cutting layups in the first half.
Clifford said Gordon’s importance to the Magic was on clear display on Monday. The veteran coach added that Orlando desperately needs Gordon to stay healthy and happy the rest of the way so that he can be a standout two-way player over the final 42 games.
“He’s a little bit out of rhythm, obviously, because he hasn’t been playing and he’s been in and out of the lineup,’’ Clifford said of Gordon. “But (on Monday), he’s 19 (points) and (nine rebounds) and he made huge plays at both ends of the floor. If he can get back, feel good and get into a rhythm, then we’re a different team.’’
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