Jacque Vaughn gathered his players together in their locker room before they tipped-off their regular season Friday night and he told them, “Thank you.” He expressed his gratitude for how they performed throughout October.
Over the two-plus hours that followed, Orlando Magic players thanked Vaughn in their own way.
They throttled the Denver Nuggets 102-89 and gave Vaughn his first victory as an NBA head coach in front of an announced sellout crowd at Amway Center. When it ended, Jameer Nelson presented Vaughn with the game ball. The Magic couldn’t have imagined a much better start to their post-Dwight Howard era.
“At the end of the day, we’re taking baby steps,” said Glen Davis, who scored a game-high 29 points. “And we’re building, we’re building, and this was a good day to build.”
Davis and his teammates stifled the Nuggets’ offense by keeping the ball in front of them and sprinting back in transition. They fought for loose basketballs. And they received contributions from up and down their roster, including from backup point guard E’Twaun Moore and backup big man Josh McRoberts.
“It was a good feeling just to win and play well together,” said J.J. Redick, who added 21 points and dished out six assists. “We were all on the same page, doing it for the same thing, no other agendas. That’s a really good feeling.”
The night’s lone negative could be costly, though. Veteran small forward Hedo Turkoglu broke his left hand during the third quarter and didn’t return to the game. Team officials said the injury would be evaluated over the weekend, but he seemingly could miss an extended period of time.
The small-forward position already was undermanned.
The two rookies expected to back-up Turkoglu — Maurice Harkless and DeQuan Jones — didn’t play Friday night. Vaughn wants Harkless, who underwent sports hernia surgery during the offseason, to practice a few more times before he appears in a game. Jones, meanwhile, has a strained abductor muscle in his hip.
Newcomer Arron Afflalo, playing against his former team, often played small forward instead of his natural position of shooting guard. Although Afflalo missed 10 of his 13 shot attempts, he helped set a tone on defense. He grabbed six rebounds and was part of an overall team effort that kept the Nuggets from driving into the lane.
“It’s exciting,” Afflalo said. “There’s been a lot of change around here. The expectations haven’t been too high. So for us to get off to this type of start, it’s a good feeling.”
Early in the second quarter, Davis collected a defensive rebound and crashed onto the parquet floor. Seated on the court, he threw a bounce pass upcourt, and the ball eventually found its way to Redick, who sank a 3-pointer.
The basket gave the Magic a 36-22 lead.
The crowd roared, and they erupted again when Davis blocked a Wilson Chandler layup attempt and Moore followed by swishing a long jumper.
“They played hard,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “They played really well. Redick and Davis had big-time games and showed that they would be competitive this year.”
But Denver (0-2) regained the momentum early in the third quarter.
Denver started the period on a 15-4 run. Orlando’s energy waned, and speedy Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson drove to the hoop for a few scores.
Vaughn watched calmly from his seat on the Magic bench for almost the entire stretch, often with his hand positioned against his chin.
He finally called a timeout after a jumper by Chandler cut Orlando’s lead to 62-52.
From the day he was hired in late July, Vaughn pledged he would be calm on the sideline. He did that on Friday, as his college coach, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, watched from the opposite side of the court.
“You don’t build a winning organization in one night, and you don’t become a great coach in one game,” Afflalo said. “He did a great job tonight. He always seems to have a calming effect. As the intensity of the game goes up and down and players become emotional, he’s been a real stable force on the bench.”
A pair of youngsters lifted Orlando (1-0) early in the fourth quarter.
Moore employed some crafty dribbling to gain some space and hit a runner in the lane to put the Magic ahead 80-68.
On Denver’s ensuing possession, Nelson stole the ball from Andre Miller.
Moore then missed a 3-pointer, but rookie power forward Andrew Nicholson, making his NBA debut, scored on a putback.
“One of the things that we’ve been stressing from Day One,” Vaughn said, “is that on any given possession, you don’t know who’s going to have the ball, who’s going to score it, who’s going to shoot it, and that’s OK with us.
“We shared the basketball tonight. We looked for each other, and it was fun to be a part of.”
For the last several weeks, the Magic have inundated the airwaves with the marketing slogan “We Will,” a promise that their new-look team at least would play hard.
On Friday night, even the most cynical fan had to utter the words “They Did.”
Afflalo was asked afterward if the team had made a statement.
“I don’t want to go too far,” he answered. “It is just one game.”
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