The early sluggish play could be partly attributed to the Magic arriving in Atlanta at 3 a.m. Sunday, just hours after Saturday’s victory at Milwaukee. But the team’s ability to overcome that first-quarter malaise drew praise from coach Steve Clifford, who lauded his team’s resolve.
“I just told them I was proud of them,” Clifford said. “I thought it was a professional, mature, purposeful 48 minutes. I felt like our guys started right and had a good attitude. [Atlanta] is hard to play against. It was a good night for us.”
Vucevic scored 15 of those points in the game’s first two quarters, including a second-chance bucket off an offensive rebound that stopped a mini Atlanta spurt. The Hawks had chopped Orlando’s double-digit lead to six with a little more than two minutes left in the second quarter. Vucevic also sank a pair of free throws that were part of an 11-2 run that extended Orlando’s 52-46 lead to a commanding 63-48 halftime advantage.
It was the Magic’s way of shrugging off a slow start in the first quarter that featured nip-and-tuck action, resulting in Orlando clinging to a 26-25 lead going into the second quarter.
Terrence Ross came off the bench to provide 18 points, most of those coming as Orlando saw seven scorers reach double figures. But the Magic got perhaps a bit of an unexpected boost from power forward Aaron Gordon.
Gordon was considered questionable after taking a hard fall during Saturday’s 103-83 win at Milwaukee, but he finished the Atlanta game with 12 points on 4-for-9 shooting and also chipped in three assists.
It ultimately was Isaac who may have been the team’s most comprehensive difference-maker. His scoring presence was needed, but he also recorded his career-high five blocked shots, lending to Orlando’s total of nine. Included in Isaac’s five rejections was a stretch during which he blocked three consecutive shots from Atlanta power forward John Collins during the same possession. Shortly after, Isaac came down on the other end and drained one of his three 3-pointers.
“I was just trying to do whatever I can to help the team win,” Isaac said. “If that’s going up to challenge shots at the rim, you know, I didn’t get them all, but I was able to put my hands on a couple.”
The Magic buried four of their seven first-half 3s in the last four minutes of the second quarter and finished 13-of-37 from behind the arc. Isaac went 3-of-7 from long range while both Gordon and Jarrell Martin knocked down a pair.
At the start of the third period, Gordon picked up where he left off in the second as he slashed to the basket for a layup despite two Hawks putting their hands in his face. Two possessions later, a two-handed slam by Evan Fournier pushed the Magic’s lead to 68-48 and prompted Atlanta to call timeout at the 10:31 mark of the third.
By the time Isaac caught a lob from Fournier and slammed it home, Orlando found itself cruising with a 75-50 lead at the 7:38 mark in the third quarter.
Atlanta could only muster a pair of field goals during the first five minutes of that pivotal third quarter as Orlando outscored the Hawks 35-26, and both teams emptied their benches for much of the remainder of the game.
Isaac was pleased the Magic found a way to maintain a lead from the first quarter to the final buzzer, never really letting Atlanta back into the game.
“Our start was definitely a bit sluggish, but we regrouped,” Isaac said. “It’s important because we’ve struggled with that over the course of the season. We’ll be playing really well in the first half and let teams get back into the game. That didn’t happen tonight.”
The win raised Orlando’s record to 25-32 and 18-15 in conference play. It also gave the Magic their first three-game winning streak of the season, which helped put them half a game ahead of Washington in the Southeast Division. The Magic are 1.5 games out of the No. 8 playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
But even though Orlando finds itself playing meaningful games with playoff implications just days before the all-star break, Vucevic said tracking down that final playoff spot is not something the Magic stress about clinching.
“We don’t really talk about it,” he said. “We know it’s there. We just take it one game at a time. Each game, we try to approach it as just focusing on that specific game. We can’t afford to look ahead because that’s when you become a little sloppy, so we’re still out of that eighth spot, so we still have a lot of work to do.”
Orlando will get a break Monday before traveling to New Orleans for a Tuesday game and then host Charlotte Thursday before the all-star break begins.