Magic handed big loss but get lift from return of rookie Aaron Gordon
ORLANDO, Fla. — Talk about getting thrown into the fire. In his first game for the Orlando Magic in more than two months, Aaron Gordon began the second quarter Sunday night with the unenviable assignment of having to try to guard Kevin Durant.
But on a night where no one on the Magic was spared from the red-hot shooting of the Oklahoma City Thunder, seeing Gordon in uniform instead of in street clothes served as a reminder of what the team had in mind by taking the 19-year-old forward out of Arizona with the fourth pick in the NBA Draft last summer.
Gordon’s eight points, three rebounds and one assist in 12 minutes won’t make the sting of a 127-99 drubbing at the hands of the Thunder go away. But in a game with few positives, his return topped the list.
"It felt great," he said. "I just enjoy the game so much. You realize that when you’re not playing, how much you miss it. And when I got back out there, it’s fun."
Gordon underwent surgery Nov. 21 to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal in his left foot. Though he was cleared to play before the Magic faced the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night, he was not added to the active list, with coach Jacque Vaughn saying Gordon had yet to take part in any five-on-five practice drills.
"I thought he was OK," Vaughn said after the Magic gave up their most points in a regulation game since 2008. "He ran the floor well and rebounded, tried to mix things up for us a little bit by being physical."
The Magic were already down 37-20 when Vaughn brought in Gordon to give Channing Frye a breather. The Thunder rattled off the next seven points, including a driving slam dunk by Durant. Gordon was pulled after picking up two fouls in a span of 4:35, and he did not return until there was 9:34 to go in the game and many fans had already headed to the exits.
"That’s one thing I thought about, just being thrown back into the fire," Gordon said of going up against Durant. "I wish I could have guarded him all game. But it’s up to Jacque Vaughn, and I trust him completely. We’ll see them again (Feb. 2 in Oklahoma City)."
With just under five minutes remaining, Gordon knocked down a 3-point shot. He had gone 4 of 8 from that distance prior to his injury. On a team where Frye and even Kyle O’Quinn can provide a long-range shooting threat at the power forward spot, Gordon can spread the defense that much more.
If he was favoring the foot, it certainly didn’t show.
"I wake up some days and forget that I even had surgery," he said. "When I’m out on the court, you can’t think about that, even a little bit."
"He can change the game just from his energy," center Nikola Vucevic said. "With a couple of big plays defensively or offensively, he can get everybody going."
While the Magic forced 20 turnovers, the bulk of those came after they gave up a franchise-record 79 points in the first half. Vaughn had told reporters before the game that in the Magic’s attempt to become more of an uptempo team, there could be growing pains like this.
"There are going to be games because of the pace and because of the transition level we’re trying to create where it’s not going to look pretty," he said. "It’s just that simple. And tonight was one of those nights where you’re playing a very good ballclub."
The Magic went into the game ranked 22nd out of 30 teams in defensive field-goal percentage. Adding Gordon is a step in the right direction, but Vaughn suggested the entire roster needs a bit of an attitude adjustment without the ball.
"I want you to not like the dude that you’re competing against," he said. "That’s the old school. That’s the NBA, and I’m OK with that. It’s a different era, a different age with social media and understanding and laughing and joking with each other. I want confrontation. I want hostility. I want aversion. I want nastiness. I want all of the above for us to grow as a team."
Gordon is ready to lend a hand in doing just that.
"I think it’s easy. I really do," he said. "We have a bunch of competitors on this team, and competitive spirit turns into nastiness if it’s not going your way. If we’re not the nice guys, so be it, if it helps us get a win."