All those familiar situations laid in fron of them for the Magic. The large lead whittled away thanks to 3-point bombsand some porous defense. The fight to stay in the game and give themselves a chance to win.
Would there be the will and the execution to finish it?
That has been the missing piece in several Magic games this season. Several tight ball games have seen the Magic blow opportunities with sloppy execution that does not seem to get better. One poor offensive play leads to a poor defensive play and the cycle of losing continues — yes, we see you down there Celtics.
The point of the game is to win. Believe in the idea of tanking all you want, but the players on the court want to win. And they want to improve. That is the most important part in the rebuilding of any team. To simply get better and build momentum for the future.
Even though the Celtics ended up tying the Magic in the Lottery standings with their loss to the Hawks, this was a win the Magic desperately needed just to have some sense of confidence.
There was that bug-a-boo — the inbounds pass — and something dangerously close to a five-second violation. Kyle O’Quinn did get it in, throwing to an empty space that Maurice Harkless almost did not get to. He eventually got the ball back at the elbow and faced a difficult double team. O’Quinn admitted later he had nowhere to turn but somehow he found Harkless making a run toward the rim. O’Quinn fed him and scored an important bucket late, giving the Magic a three-point lead with 24.6 seconds left.
O’Quinn was not done. He drew a late-game assignment on Joe Johnson thanks to the Nets going extremely small. Jacque Vaughn urged him to stay down on Johnson even as he took a 3-pointer. The advice and the discipline paid off despite Johnson’s brilliant play throughout the fourth quarter. O’Quinn blocked the shot and the Magic secured the game 115-111 from the foul line (OK, a Maurice Harkless foul on a Mirza Teletovic 3-pointer left the door slightly ajar).
Survival, for sure. But a game closed down when it was needed to. Call it some form of growth for this young team and a tangible sign that things are getting better for those on the roster.
“It means a lot,” Kyle O’Quinn said. “It means going into the next year and going into the next season, you want to take these habits into the summer and build on them for next year.”
Jameer Nelson, sitting in his locker next to O’Quinn, playfully reminded the second-year center that the team still has four games remaining on the schedule. A gentle reminder to focus on the final tasks ahead for this young team as the 82-game schedule comes to its close.
Wednesday night, the same mistakes that have cost the Magic time and time again seemed to disappear and the Magic made the most of their opportunities. The fourth quarter was a blitz of offensive production as the teams combined to shoot 23 of 39 and get to the line 25 times. There was hardly a moment for either unit to get itself set defensively.
Tobias Harris scored 10 of his 16 points in the final quarter (most of it early) and Joe Johnson scored 12 of his 31 in the final period.
It came down to matchups however and who could take advantage of that strange matchup at power forward between Joe Johnson and Kyle O’Quinn.
The Nets, playing without Paul Pierce and opting to rest Kevin Garnett the entire fourth quarter, went with Johnson at the four. That left an odd mismatch that someone had to take advantage of. Orlando struggled to contain Johnson on one end, but Brooklyn struggled to keep O’Quinn from getting involved. He grabbed two offensive rebounds in the final two minutes, including a tip in off a Nelson miss, and had that big assist.
The Magic also were able to attack the paint with Mason Plumlee having fouled out. Arron Afflalo scored 25 points on 9-for-16 shooting, attacking the paint as aggressively as he had at the beginning of the season when he got some All-Star consideration. Jameer Nelson was looking to attack too on his way to 14 points and seven assists.
O’Quinn had 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds to pace the Magic on the interior.
The spark for Orlando offensively came in the form of E’Twaun Moore. He helped key an 18-1 run in the second quarter, scoring 14 straight points at one time. He ended with 17 points, making all six of his field goals and all five of his 3-point attempts. The Magic took a big lead behind a 35-point second quarter.
Even Andrew Nicholson played big with nine points off the bench, his highest scoring game since March 19 (he has not scored in double figures since Jan. 2). Everyone stepped up and played a role to secure this victory.
“I noticed this season a little bit we’ve been better at closing out games,” Arron Afflalo said. “Last season we really struggled in close games that were under five with a minute left. It shows a little maturity and a sign of confidence from the group collectively. Hopefully it continues to get better.”
And that is the tangible progress you want to see as the coach of a developing team and as the fan of a developing team. It may not help in Lottery position — Orlando is now tied with Boston for the third best lottery odds — but it does help with the players on the roster keep their confidence up and helps them know this long, difficult season was worth something.
Momentum has to breed some encouragement and focus heading into the offseason, right?
That might be asking too much. But the Magic saw something positive occur on the court and put past mistakes behind them.
“It was a good win for us tonight,” Tobias Harris said. “To close it out and be in a close, tight game, we’ve been in a lot of them this year where we weren’t able to come out with a victory. So it was a big step for us.”