ORLANDO, Fla. — Learning experiences for young players on sub-.500 teams don’t always have to take place in losses.
When the Orlando Magic withstood an early fourth-quarter run Wednesday night by the Detroit Pistons, it was with Victor Oladipo, Kyle O’Quinn and Maurice Harkless on the floor and Glen Davis, Nikola Vucevic and Jameer Nelson on the bench.
O’Quinn and Harkless were part of the five-man unit which was thoroughly outplayed to begin the fourth quarter Monday night at Indiana in a game where Oladipo went 2 of 11 from the floor. But with Nelson back in his usual starting point guard role after missing two games with a sore right knee, Oladipo became a reserve for only the second time since Jan. 8.
And for once, the rookie from Indiana wasn’t the Magic player displaying the highest level of energy. It was O’Quinn, the second-year center whose minutes picked up last month while Vucevic was out because of a concussion, who sparked the Magic to a 112-98 victory with back-to-back rejections of Pistons guard Brandon Jennings.
"He played great, absolutely amazing today," said Oladipo, whose team-high 20 points got somewhat overlooked amid O’Quinn’s career-high six blocked shots. "When he’s blocking shots out there and he’s still running the floor and beating everybody down the floor, it’s crazy energy. And we just feed off that."
Although the Magic led by double digits throughout the final quarter, there were concerns when the Pistons got two quick baskets in the first two minutes to get to within 10 and Magic coach Jacque Vaughn called a timeout. Considering Davis already had his best game in weeks with 18 points and Nelson already had 11 assists, it must have been tempting for Vaughn to let his veterans steady the ship.
Instead, he stuck with Oladipo, O’Quinn, Harkless, E’Twaun Moore and Doron Lamb, none of whom are older than 24. And that faith was rewarded.
"He didn’t just jump and take us all out and put the starters back in," Harkless said. "He let us finish the game. So that’s important for us, just to know that he trusts us."
Nowhere is that trust most evident than with O’Quinn, whose blocks were the most by any member of the Magic since the days of Dwight Howard.
"The one thing that a player wants is for his coach to trust him," Vaughn said. "And that works both ways. I need to trust him. So he’s gained the trust of the coaching staff, whether that’s watching extra film, doing extra work afterward. And most importantly, he’s consistently putting games together where he’s doing the right thing over and over again. That’s progress."
"You’re not looking over your shoulder as much," said O’Quinn, who went into the night with a total of 29 blocks in 37 games. "You’re just going out there and playing. If you’re the only one nervous out there and looking over your shoulder, you might mess up the unit. So the trust he has in me, I appreciate it."
Even with O’Quinn finishing with more blocks than rebounds, the Magic did a much better job on the boards compared to when the Pistons manhandled them last week. Harkless led them with nine on a night when Moore was their only player who didn’t have at least two.
"I was impressed with our approach of finding bodies," Vaughn said. "You could see us putting bodies on bodies and boxing people out tonight."
The Magic also came within one assist of matching their season high of 30. Oladipo handed out only three, but that was more than offset by him going 8 of 10 from the floor and playing a key part in the Magic’s 15-5 advantage in fast-break points.
"I was shooting shots I could make," he said. "Today I made them. The past two games, I didn’t make them. I’ve just got to continue to keep shooting with confidence."
Oladipo’s is more of a quiet confidence. By contrast, O’Quinn might be their noisiest player on the floor, although Harkless isn’t always fooled by his teammate’s high decibel levels.
"A lot of times, he’s confused too," he said.
It’s the type of observation you can make and laugh about following a win.