Maybe the Orlando Magic really have grown up.
Especially their young starting center, Nik Vucevic.
When the Magic lost a 19-point lead to the vaunted Los Angeles Clippers during the third quarter Wednesday night, the Magic seemed headed for a painful loss.
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But they recovered, and in the process, Vucevic may have reached a turning point.
The Magic stunned the Clippers 98-90 after Arron Afflalo and Vucevic hit key shots down the stretch and Vucevic sank all six foul shots he attempted in the final seconds.
“We just believe in ourselves more,” Vucevic said. “They made their run. Last year, there was a pretty good chance we’d probably just get down on ourselves and separate. But, this year, I think we’re really close as a team.”
Vucevic finished with 30 points and 21 rebounds and, perhaps, enhanced self-confidence.
“He was extremely determined from the first play of the game,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “I love it. He looked over at me and wanted me to call his number. That’s a first in our time together. It was great to see and great to be a part of.”
Afflalo hit a turnaround jumper to put the Magic up 90-89 with 1:47 remaining. Then, after a missed 3-pointer by Chris Paul, Vucevic hit a 16-foot jumper that extended Orlando’s lead to three points.
Former Magic swingman J.J. Redick missed a potential game-tying 3 from the right wing with 27 seconds left. Although DeAndre Jordan collected the offensive rebound and was fouled, Jordan made just one of his two free-throw attempts.
On Orlando’s ensuing possession, Vucevic was fouled and — with the announced crowd of 15,807 inside Amway Center standing quietly — he made both of his free throws. Vucevic made four more foul shots the rest of the way to ice the game.
“He played great tonight,” Afflalo said. “There’s no other way to put it. Thirty points and 20 rebounds? He was a monster tonight, and I saw it in him, too. He was very focused.”
So were the Magic (3-2), who moved above .500 for the first time since Nov. 7, 2012.
The Magic sought to limit the Clippers’ fastbreak opportunities and force the Clippers to shoot only after the Magic set their defense. Orlando coaches also wanted their players to pack the paint and contest long-range shots instead of allowing gimmes near the hoop.
In their first four games, the Clippers averaged 119.0 points per game and shot 50.3 percent from the field.
On Wednesday, the Magic held them to 37.9 percent shooting.
“I thought they dictated the pace tonight,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought they dictated the physicality.”
It wasn’t easy. Los Angeles (3-2) gained momentum in the third quarter.
Down by 19 points early in the period, the Clippers went on a 32-7 run fueled by Redick and high-flying power forward Blake Griffin.
Last season’s Magic would’ve crumbled.
This season’s Magic didn’t.
“I think the best part was that we didn’t say too much,” Afflalo said. “We kind of just played the game. There wasn’t too much bickering. There wasn’t too much of anything. It was just, ‘Get back to doing what works and let’s finish out the fourth quarter.’ "
Backup shooting guard E’Twaun Moore helped.
Moore hit a pair of 3-pointers midway through the fourth quarter that gave Orlando an 86-82 lead.
A few minutes later, the Clippers went ahead again on a jumper by Griffin, who scored a team-high 23 points.
That set the stage for Afflalo, who hit a turnaround jumper over Jared Dudley to put the Magic ahead 90-89 with 1:47 left.
Vucevic scored Orlando’s final eight points.
“Individually, we should be proud of ourselves but more so collectively,” Magic point guard Jameer Nelson said. “We stuck [together] when it was tough.”
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