ORLANDO, Fla. — Tobias Harris described it as a game the Orlando Magic had to win. Thanks in large part to a career-high scoring output from him, they did just that.
No, the Magic aren’t in anything resembling a playoff push. But they didn’t want to suffer the indignity of losing to the Philadelphia 76ers, who went 0-for-February and also unloaded a handful of quality players before the trading deadline in a clear attempt to improve their stock in the NBA Draft lottery.
So when the Magic found themselves down by nine points late in the third quarter Sunday night, they knew they had to straighten up in a hurry.
"We knew as a team that this was a game that we had to win," Harris said. "We lost at (Saturday night) Miami, but I thought we played a pretty good game at Miami. This was a tough game, mentally-wise."
Harris had a team-high 20 points against the Heat and 19 by halftime against the 76ers. The problem was that his teammates were a collective 9 of 33 over the first 24 minutes to a team ranked last in the league in points allowed per game.
With Arron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson not in uniform, the Magic needed to rely on someone in addition to Harris, who finished with 31 points.
"We leaned on him a lot, and he was able to deliver," coach Jacque Vaughn said. "Overall, his game was pretty efficient tonight. He made shots from different parts of the floor and did a lot of good things."
Through three quarters, the Magic had missed all nine of their 3-point attempts and were in serious jeopardy of seeing their streak of 553 games with at least one basket from long distance come to an end. Maurice Harkless finally broke through to start the final period, although that would be the only 3-pointer they made.
What mattered most was that Harkless’ basket was part of a 13-4 run to start the quarter that came with Harris, Nikola Vucevic and Victor Oladipo all on the bench. A dunk by Kyle O’Quinn gave the Magic their first lead since less than four minutes into the second quarter, and one by E’Twaun Moore off an electrifying crossover dribble probably elicited the loudest cheers of the night.
"I think that was kind of a turning point for us," said Moore, who had eight of his 11 points in the fourth quarter and was the only Magic player on the floor for all 12 minutes of the final period.
While Harris had a relatively quiet fourth quarter, his two free throws with 14.1 seconds remaining enabled him to break his career high of 30 points that he had reached twice after being acquired by the Magic a year ago. An 80.7 percent free-throw shooter going into the game, his 9-of-9 performance from the line was something in which he took great pride.
"Before every game, I try to make 10 free throws in a row, just to get my mind going and get my focus set," he said. "And I try to incorporate that same focus and just try to be consistent."
The Magic didn’t need Harris to go off down the stretch because their defense was so terrific. The 12 points by the 76ers represented a season low by a Magic opponent in the fourth quarter, and it would have been lower if not for a jumper at the final horn by Thaddeus Young.
Vaughn was quick to credit Moore and O’Quinn for their energy off the bench.
"Those guys have been putting in a lot of work with their coaches and staying after and watching film," he said. "Their preparation going forward has been really good, and I think that’s why they’re finding success."
Harris has now led the Magic in scoring in three of their past five contests. The sprained left ankle that caused him to miss 21 of their first 22 games is a distant memory, and he’s focused on what lies ahead.
"Anything I can do for us to win is what I want to do," he said.