ORLANDO, Fla. — Even before Victor Oladipo went into his 360-degree dunk act after picking Deron Williams’ pocket, this was a night where young, fresh legs beat experience and Hall-of-Fame credentials.
Come April, the Brooklyn Nets could well materialize into a serious threat to the Miami Heat’s reign in the Eastern Conference while the Orlando Magic could again be headed for 60 or more losses.
But four games into their season, the Magic had to appreciate the lifts they got off the bench from their 21-year-old rookie guard and 23-year-old forward Andrew Nicholson.
It’s safe to say 37-year-old Kevin Garnett and 36-year-old Paul Pierce, both less than four months removed from the Boston Celtics, weren’t so thrilled with what they saw.
“That group in the other locker room is very impressive — Hall of Famers,” Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said after the Magic’s 107-86 victory over the Nets. “If we played them one-on-one, the majority of nights we’ll lose. But if we come with a collective responsibility approach, we have a chance. And our guys did that on both ends of the floor.”
After not managing a win by 20 or more points once last season, the Magic have accomplished that feat twice in three nights. Their 66-point second half was a collective effort, although it’s impossible to ignore what Oladipo and Nicholson gave them.
They earned the praise of Arron Afflalo, who handed out a career-high eight assists in addition to being one of six Magic players to score in double figures.
“Those two in particular have a sense of who they are, a sense of belonging in this league already,” he said. “But they’re both very, very humble. And the combination of those two things allows them to take a more mature approach to the game and play well, no matter who we’re playing against.”
Oladipo readily admitted the Magic’s 41-38 halftime lead was in spite of a rash of turnovers by him. If not for 13 points and seven rebounds by another 23-year-old, center Nikola Vucevic, it could have been a different story.
“Sometimes I can be too unselfish,” said Oladipo, who tied Vucevic for team-high scoring honors with 19 points. “I’m looking for passes that aren’t there. Too many turnovers. Way too many turnovers. But like they say, it’s a learning process.”
“He doesn’t worry about it,” Vaughn said. “He goes back out there and gives effort and energy for his teammates and makes a difference in the second half for us.”
Oladipo got everybody’s attention with a spin move past Andray Blatche for a layup which put the Magic up 67-54. That was followed shortly after by an assist on a dunk by Vucevic.
And for the finishing touch, he had nothing but daylight in front of him after a turnover by Williams and delivered a dunk that is bound to be replayed over and over.
“It was totally instinct, really,” he said. “I don’t know what I was thinking at the time. I just did it.”
Nicholson delivered the third double-double of his career with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Though he wasn’t on the floor at the same time as Garnett for much of the night, it bears mention that the 15-time All-Star finished with only eight points and five rebounds in 22 minutes.
“I just love seeing how aggressive he’s playing,” Vaughn said of Nicholson. “When he gets the basketball, he’s very confident. And his teammates are confident that he’s going to make the right play.”
Pierce had 16 points, but only got to the free-throw line four times and missed all three of his 3-point attempts.
“I’m competitive just like they are,” Oladipo said. “I want to win just as bad as they do. And eventually I want to be a potential Hall of Famer just like them.”
When it came to getting to talk to two guys he grew up admiring, Oladipo decided against striking up any conversations. As he said of the ultra-intense Garnett, “It’s kind of hard to say anything to him when he’s playing.”