Kim Klement/USA TODAY
Victor Oladipo knocked the ball away from Deron Williams and saw nothing but open floor in front of him.
The air rose a bit in Amway Center in anticipation of what was to come. How would the rookie respond? What would the rookie do in this situation? A sure two points could turn into a highlight prety quickly. Doubly quickly when it comes to Victor Oladipo.
If one play can describe where the Magic were last year to where they are now after a 107-86 win over the Nets on Sunday, maybe 180 degrees is going a bit too far. Oladipo’s 360-degree, break-away dunk though sure had the 15,000-plus at Amway Center feeling good about the direction this team is heading, as if the final score would not. It certainly sent the Magic’s stadium buzzing in a way it has had few occasions to do in a tumultuous three years since it opened.
Oladipo certainly has many people turning their heads, bouncing back from a rough first half where he had four turnovers and five points to score a total of 19 points, a career high in his young career. The Magic better be having teams turning their heads after a second straight game holding a team to worse than 40 percent shooting and a rout on their home floor.
“Teammates just kept telling me to be aggressive, and I just listened,” Oladipo said. “I was poised. The greatest thing about the NBA is its a long game. Both halves are like two whole games. There is no telling how you can play the second half. I just try to stay focused, come in there and play hard on both ends.”
The Magic awoke from an offensive scoring funk and were the ones who took control in the second half, an unexpected turn considering the expectations and experience of both squads.
Orlando scored 66 points in the second half, making 50 percent of their shots and 14 of 18 free throws (another key point in this seeming renaissance is the free throw shooting). Meanwhile the Nets had 48 points in the half, largely relying on a late scoring surge as the Magic took as much as a 23-point lead in the second half and never trailed.
Orlando went inside early and often, getting 28 points in the paint in the second half 42 for the game.
The suddenly awoken offense ran through Nikola Vucevic and the Magic’s bigs, eventually freeing up space for Oladipo and the guards to drive through. Vucevic recorded 19 points and 12 rebounds for Orlando. Andrew Nicholson had his third career double double with 17 points and 11 rebounds. He went hard after the glass on both ends showing the physicality and aggression he has gained during the offseason.
“I think that was very important,” Vucevic said. “It’s what my teammates and my coaches want me to do. That’s what I’m going to keep doing. It helps our team a lot on the offensive end to where we can go inside-out and get the guards easy shots and open shots and I get a couple buckets in there. That’s really important to have a team that can play inside and outside as well.”
The Magic’s defense did a good job too. They forced a lot of mid-range jumpers and once again contested shots in the paint. Brooklyn scored 26 points in the paint on 13-for-33 shooting. Nikola Vucevic said part of the team’s strategy was to have the Nets bigs hanging around the perimeter taking long twos. Vucevic said he felt confident in his ability to carry that load and that responsibility because he believes in himself and his team believes in him to play that role.
The strategy appeared to work as Kevin Garnett missed eight of his 11 shots for his eight points and Brook Lopez stayed away from the rim for the most part in scoring his 21 points on 8-for-15 shooting. More importantly, the bigs did their job allowing the guards to do theirs. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson combined for 11 points on 5-for-17 shooting.
It was not a day for guards though as Arron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson did not fare much better in making 10 of their 29 shots. Afflalo still managed a career-high eight assists.
Despite the grind offensively through the first half, the Magic stuck to their game plan and pulled together. When they took the lead, there was no letting up. Orlando had its victory and it was never really in doubt.
No matter how much the naysayers thought it might be or should be.
“I think it’s a reflection of the work that our guys have put in,” Jacque Vaughn said. “Not only the returning guys, but the additional guys this year, whether it was during training camp or practices. Tongith was just a great all-out effort from beginning to end.”
The Magic’s win was much more than just Oladipo and his performance. Far more.
The emergence of the Magic’s rookie in front of everyone’s eyes though remained a stunning symbol of the Magic’s turnaround to this point.
Oladipo, the sage of a rookie he is, reminded the media that the NBA season is a marathon and not a sprint. There are still many games to play yet. Right now, nobody seems able to wait for them to come.