Orlando Magic Grades: Orlando Magic 110, Atlanta Hawks 106

Orlando Magic were desperate. They needed that edge and desperation. The one thing that was missing from the second quarter on as the Atlanta Hawks — that five-win team playing without two rotation centers and generally thought to be tanking for next season — throughout the middle of the game.

Down by nine points in the second half, the Magic would have to make their stand at some point. They would have to change the direction. Even if the shots were not falling and even if the team was struggling to generate its offense.

With each stop, they clawed their way up the hill, only to slip back down again.

The light came at the end, at last.

After failing to expand a one-point lead on three straight possessions, the Hawks took the lead by three points with 14.7 seconds left. The Magic had one last chance. And even if it was ugly they were going to make this one work.

Jonathon Simmons‘ pass to the perimeter after a drive was deflected to Nikola Vucevic. He saw the defense collapsing around him and dished it back to D.J. Augustin. Through a small window, D.J. Augustin drained the game-tying 3-pointer to force overtime.

Orlando continued to fight and showed some grit the rest of the way, putting Atlanta away for a 110-106 victory at Amway Center on Wednesday.

Even with Evan Fournier going out with a sprained right ankle on the first play of overtime after he hit an and-one over the defense. Even with the Hawks still finding ways to get open threes and make things close. The Magic found a way. That counts for something?

Orlando was frustrated for sure. The team saw its own nine-point lead evaporate in the second quarter. The Magic committed nine turnovers and shot just 6 for 28 from beyond the arc, including missing their first nine. The Hawks were ready to scrap and do whatever it took to attack the Magic’s poor perimeter defense.

Finally, Orlando stepped up defensively. Nikola Vucevic became a bigger presence in the paint and held off some attempts that would have surely sunk the team. Orlando took the win when it had to, despite all of its mistakes and frustration.

With the Atlanta Hawks down Dewayne Dedmon, Mike Muscala and John Collins, it should have been a field day for Nikola Vucevic on both ends. And in some ways it was. He was as active as he has been around the basket. Coach Frank Vogel goaded more defense out of him than at any point in the season. He even did a good job cutting off and containing dribble penetration, although perhaps he could have been a bit more active with his hands to deter passes into the paint.

But Vucevic did a great job. He recorded four blocks and many of them came late in the game. He was a real impediment, using his verticality well to challenge and change shots at the rim. He was even solid on the boards, grabbing a few tough rebounds.

Vucevic finished with 22 points and 16 rebounds, adding four assists and four blocks for good measure. He perhaps hung on the perimeter too much (9 for 19 for the game) and could have looked to attack the inside. He had a lot more success there. But getting a strong defensive game from him was a real bonus and critical to the win.

Evan Fournier still had his heroic moments. He was the team’s leading scorer with 27 points on 12-for-21 shooting, after all. In the second and third quarters when no one was making shots, Fournier was at least making some tough ones. He was constantly able to slither free and into the paint and finish around the rim.

But late in the game, Fournier really struggled. It seemed as the defense collapsed around him, Fournier was trying to force his game even more. He was not looking to pass out of the double teams when he drove deep into the defense and could not finish. His drives, particularly late when the Magic were clinging to a one-point lead, were wild.

Orlando got a lot from Fournier. And his final act was a tough play, finishing at the rim before landing and turning his ankle. But it also felt like he was forcing his offense the entire night. The ball movement that carried the Magic through the first quarter stopped as Fournier’s shot total went up. The Magic may be without Fournier for a while. But he and the Magic need to find a better balance.

Aaron Gordon looked like he was ready to drive the car to a big win in the first quarter. That is where he scored 10 of his 24 points, making five of seven shots. He finished with 24 points but was just 4 for 8 the rest of the way. Orlando struggled to get Aaron Gordon the shots that it seemed like he was earning with his initial play.

How did he do it? The Magic set Gordon up on a few post ups that gave him face-up opportunities against Ersan Ilyasova. He also got some one-on-one situations off pin downs that enabled him to attack holes in the defense. Credit the Atlanta Hawks for closing down these gaps and walling off the paint. But the Magic also noticeably went away from Gordon.

Gordon still found a way to contribute. He posted 16 rebounds, including five offensive rebounds. He had a few big putbacks in overtime to help the Magic pull away and maintain a two-possession lead. And defensively, Gordon was solid. Like Vucevic, he used his athleticism to challenge and change shots at the rim. All anyone can ask for from the team’s budding star.

Elfrid Payton was, as he seemingly has been throughout his career, one part strong and the other part frustration. There were moments when Elfrid Payton was attacking as the Magic will need him to and getting the ball moving within the offense. And then there were the moments that made everyone scratch their head. Particularly on defense.

Elfrid Payton struggled defensively keeping Dennis Schroder in front of him. Schroder finished with 26 points on 10-for-26 shooting and seven assists. But Schroder’s attacks had a trickle-down effect. When  Payton got beat, Vucevic had to step up and guard the ball handler. That left a player like Miles Plumlee or two-way contract signee Tyler Cavanaugh with an open lob. The helper was a bit late pinching down.

Offensively, Payton was even more puzzling. He scored just six points on 3-for-11 shooting, missing all five of his 3-point attempts. He still dished out six assists, but added four turnovers. At times, it felt like Payton did not know where to be, running into or crowding players. He made some big plays down the stretch, including a steal and score in overtime, but it was hard to figure out what to make of Payton all night.

The Atlanta Hawks deserve a lot of credit for their fight all night. The Hawks did not shoot well — 43 percent, although they went 11 for 27 from beyond the arc. They gave up a big lead in the fourth quarter and collapsed a bit. But they were always playing hard. Players like DeAndre’ Bembry and Kent Bazemore were diving on the floor trying to save possessions constantly. They used their length to wall off the paint and force 17 turnovers.

Atlanta just was not able to execute cleanly. That is the lot of a team in their position. The Hawks committed 19 turnovers themselves. They gave up a lot of points in the paint. When they were not able to keep the Magic out, the Magic scored. And so while Atlanta was able to frustrate Orlando, the game was always in the balance. The Magic just needed to ramp up their urgency and they could make their comeback.

The Hawks did not even do much particularly wrong on the final play of regulation. It was a communication error. But Atlanta could not rely solely on Dennis Schroder. He struggled to finish over and around Vucevic down the stretch. The Magic made the plays they needed. The Hawks were sent to another loss.

The Orlando Magic take on the Denver Nuggets next at the Amway Center on Friday.

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