When the Orlando Magic followed up two straight season-opening losses with a pair of lopsided wins over New Orleans and then Brooklyn, it turned a few heads.
Their latest victory will certainly garner them even more attention.
Nik Vucevic had 30 points — including six free throws in the final 23 seconds — and 21 rebounds to help the Orlando Magic hold on for a 98-90 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night.
The win was the Magic’s third in a row, and gives them their first three-game streak since December of last season.
Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said there’s no real secret to his team’s success so far.
”Trust. We kept trusting each other,” he said.
Vaughn smiled when he recalled Vucevic calling for the ball down the stretch, and the third-year big man said afterward that his success in the closing minutes only adds to the confidence he feels in his game right now.
”I know my team needs me to be aggressive,” said Vucevic, who posted his fifth-career 20-20 game. ”The coaching staff keeps telling me to be aggressive on both ends of the court. I’m just trying to deliver for my team so we can get some wins.”
Orlando led by as many as 19 points in the third quarter, but Los Angeles went on a 25-5 run to take its first lead that quieted the Amway Center crowd.
Blake Griffin led the Clippers with 23 points and 13 rebounds, and Chris Paul added 18 points and 10 assists. Former Magic guard J.J. Redick also chipped in 17 points.
But the Clippers, who had been averaging 124 points and shooting more than 50 percent during a three-game winning streak, were held to just 37 percent on the night.
Los Angeles became the third straight Magic opponent to shoot under 40 percent.
The Clippers have little time to dwell on their shortcomings, though, as they continue a three-game road trip Thursday at Miami.
Even during their win streak Clippers coach Doc Rivers has been cautioning that their defense wasn’t close to acceptable. He said his approach to changing the culture requires no special formula.
”You’ve just got to keep talking about it,” he said. ”We win games, we score 100 or whatever points, that’s always fool’s gold. Our offense is always fool’s gold. You’ve got to defend to win. The good part about tonight is that was proven.”
Paul agreed defense must start being their focus.
”It’s Game 5. Luckily we’ve got about 77 left,” Paul said. ”But we’re not going to win games unless our defense gets better.”
Just days after scoring their most points in nearly four years, the Clippers were sluggish and looked a little tired on both ends early as the youthful Magic pushed the pace on the way to building a 15-point halftime lead.
The Clippers led 75-72 early in the fourth when Byron Mullens and Andrew Nicholson got tangled up running down the floor. Nicholson fell to the ground during the scrum and was initially whistled for a technical foul.
It was reviewed and a technical was also awarded to Mullens.
The play seemed to re-ignite the Magic, though, who took the lead back, 83-80, on a transition 3-pointer by E’Twaun Moore with 6:43 to play.
Paul tied it again at 86 with a short jumper in the lane a few trips later, and a defensive 3-seconds call on the Magic and a free throw by Redick gave back the lead to Los Angeles.
It twice changed hands on the next two trips before a fade away jumper by Arron Afflalo put the Magic back in front 90-89.
The Clippers called timeout to set up a play, but Paul missed a 3-pointer late in the shot clock which was rebounded by Orlando.
Vucevic then scored off a feed from Jameer Nelson on the other end.
Paul turned it over on the Clippers’ next possession, but the Magic failed to get up a clean shot on their ensuing trip.
DeAndre Jordan was fouled and connected on 1 of 2 free throws to trim it 92-90 with 25 seconds remaining.
Vucevic then started his parade to the line to close it out.
”It’s more important that we took the blow that they gave us,” Magic guard Jameer Nelson said. ”They came out in the third and pretty much had their way. Basketball is a game of runs. They made their run and we took the blow. We executed well, we stuck to our game plan and even when they executed against our game plan and were successful, we stuck with it.”
NOTES: Magic F Tobias Harris sat out his fifth straight game with a sprained left ankle. Vaughn said there remains no timetable for his return. . . .The Clippers played without F Matt Barnes (calf). Rivers said he could miss Thursday’s game against Miami as well. . . . Recently-retired Grant Hill was in attendance on Wednesday night. He played with both the Magic and Clippers during his 19-year career.