Nobody knew quite what to expect from the Magic as they embarked on this new era. What would this team be? Who would be its leaders?
Inside the halls of Amway Center though, preparation was being done and the team was going about its business. There were no distractions from the prying eyes of media expectations, just a quiet resolve to play together and do what was necessary to win.
The things you would expect from a franchise hoping to re-taste championship glory and build a foundation after being destroyed and decimated.
Maybe, though, Orlando was not quite so stupid. Maybe those expectations were wrong. Maybe hard work and teamwork count for something if everyone believes.
Jacque Vaughn thanked his players for the hard work they had put in the last month as the Magic prepared to step onto the court for the first time in this entirely new and unknown era. And the Magic played exactly how Vaughn would want them to — with effort, with grit and with energy throughout the 48 minutes.
There was hardly a moment Orlando let up in its season-opening 102-89 victory over Denver at Amway Center on Friday night. And that is exactly what Vaughn is likely to remember when he looks at the game ball Jameer Nelson presented to him afterward.
“It was a good feeling,” Jacque Vaughn said of earning his first win. “Before the game I thanked all the guys. There was no elaborate speech, no elaborate poem or elaborate quote. I thanked the guys for this month of being together with them, for allowing me to be their coach, for coming to practice, for mutual respect and mutual communication. At the end of the game, Jameer gave me the game ball and that’s the reciprocity we’re talking about. It goes both ways. I’ll give and tonight they gave as well.”
Indeed the Magic did give, early and often. Orlando broke down Denver’s defense by getting out on the run and making quick passes to open teammates. The unselfishness was what Vaughn wants this team to be defined by and they displayed that in their first game.
Orlando had 24 assists on its 42 field goal makes and survived a horrendous 2-for-9 shooting game from Jameer Nelson and 3-for-13 shooting night from Arron Afflalo. They made their contributions elsewhere with Nelson dishing out seven assists and Afflalo doing a good job defensively on Andre Iguodala, who shot only 3 for 10 on the evening.
Particularly since Hedo Turkoglu left the game with a broken left hand in the third quarter, Orlando was stretched very thin at small forward, using lineups that often featured Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, E’Twaun Moore or Arron Afflalo to keep the boat steady. Despite the Nuggets featuring a big and long lineup, Orlando forced turnovers and got out on the break — another hallmark of what Vaughn wants his teams to do.
They all did their jobs though. Moore came off the bench to score 13 points. J.J. Redick put in a strong first quarter when it seemed like Denver might put in a bid to control the tempo and pace of the game with 21 points off the bench and six assists. Glen Davis though proved to be the guy Orlando turned to.
“We don’t got All Stars. We’ve got to be able to share the ball,” Glen Davis said after his 29-point, 10-rebound performance as he became the focal point of the offense with 13 makes on 25 shots and a 53.3 percent true shooting percentage.
“All night, every night we’re supposed to have a high level of assists because we need each other. We’re going to make sure that we play together. Some nights you’ll have guys shooting the ball 25 times. Sometimes you won’t. Sometimes it might be a defensive night. Tonight was a night like that.”
Orlando made this night about what many perceived to be the team’s weaknesses. The Magic played strong defense, crowding the paint and making it difficult for the Nuggets to get clean passes back out to the perimeter. Denver shot 38.1 percent in the game and 7 for 26 from beyond the arc. The only time the Nuggets made a serious run in the third quarter was because of the Magic’s fouling — the Magic conceded 14 free throws and committed eight fouls in that quarter.
Orlando also attacked the paint and largely took care of the glass. The team won the battle on the boards 46-45, getting six rebounds from Afflalo and seven energetic rebounds from Josh McRoberts. The Magic had 60 points in the paint, including 20 alone in the first quarter, and 15 fast break points. Orlando was quick to get rebounds and run the floor to get easy looks and put Denver on edge.
The Nuggets never quite found enough footing to make a serious run after the Magic took control for good in the first quarter. Orlando went on a 9-2 run to end the first quarter and take an 11-point lead to the second. The Nuggets got the lead under 10 points just twice more in this game, using a strong third-quarter push to sneak back in.
But Orlando showed resiliency. They opened the fourth quarter strong with an E’Twaun Moore steal and running jumper and then an Andrew Nicholson put back off a missed Moore 3-pointer. Orlando did not relent and did not withdraw when Denver made its run.
For one game, at least, the Magic had it all figured out. That is not enough though. There is still a team to build, goals to achieve and doubters to prove wrong.
“We’re just trying to get better every day, play as hard as we can every time we step on the court whether it’s practice or the game,” Jameer Nelson said. “We did that tonight. We made a lot of mistakes, but nobody could tell because we were playing hard. We played through the mistakes that we made. We showed great resolve and we showed that we’re going to play together.”
And that is who this Magic team hopes to be. The work is just beginning.