ORLANDO, Fla. — Neither Victor Oladipo nor Kyrie Irving have yet to appear in an NBA playoff game. Chances are good they’ll both be spectators when late April rolls around.
But thanks to them, the Orlando Magic and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked less like two teams scuffling through the early part of the season Friday night and more like a couple of franchises blessed with future stars.
Irving, the top draft pick in 2011, is already at that level. After watching him go off for a game-high 31 points in the Cavs’ 109-100 victory, it’s hard to fathom how he could have been held scoreless a week earlier in a loss at Atlanta.
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And after seeing Oladipo put together the best overall performance of his young career — yes, even better than the triple-double he recorded last week at Philadelphia — it’s harder than ever to believe that the Cavs took Anthony Bennett instead of him back in June.
The Magic continue to reap the benefits of building around the guard out of Indiana.
“He’s just getting better by the day,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “His ability to worry about today’s game is pretty impressive. And to play against a high-level backcourt like the Cavs’ backcourt, you’ve got to give Victor a lot of credit.”
In the Magic locker room, Oladipo had the look of a player who could hold his head high despite the outcome, which hasn’t always been the case during the Magic’s 7-16 start. His 26 points tied his output against the 76ers, and the rest of his line wasn’t shabby either: five rebounds, four assists, four steals, three blocks and only two turnovers in almost 37 minutes.
“I was just trying to pick my spots,” he said. “I wanted to be aggressive. I just felt like I could have been a little bit more aggressive.”
His resiliency was best displayed early in the third quarter. After getting double-teamed — some might even say mugged — by Irving and Tristan Thompson near midcourt and giving up a turnover that resulted in the Cavs taking a 56-55 lead, Oladipo didn’t sulk. He knocked down a 20-footer to put the Magic back in front, and on Cleveland’s next possession, he blocked a shot by the 7-foot Andrew Bynum.
Oladipo made all five of his shots in the quarter to help the Magic build a 76-73 lead entering the final 12 minutes. If he looked different from the player who hit only two of his 11 shots Sunday night at Houston, it was because he made some modifications to his jump shot.
“From watching the film, I wasn’t jumping the same way when I work out and work on my shots,” he said. “So these past workouts, I put a lot of emphasis on making sure I shoot game shots and jump as high as I do in the game. It’s paid off. It’s way better than it was a few games ago.”
But Irving matched him shot for shot, often at Oladipo’s expense.
“His presence is definitely felt out there,” Oladipo said. “He gets going in a variety of ways. He puts a lot of pressure on us. He’s one of the best point guards, if not the best point guard, in this league.”
The Magic began to let the game slip away when Oladipo was on the bench for more than five minutes to start the fourth quarter. Cavs coach Mike Brown brought back Irving with 8:06 to go, although it was Dion Waiters and rookie Matthew Dellavedova who sparked the 12-0 run which followed his return.
By the time Oladipo made a layup with two minutes to go, the Magic were down 11 and fans had started to head for the exits.
Vaughn defended his decision to rest Oladipo while letting Tobias Harris get an extended run in his first game in almost three weeks.
“Overall, 36 minutes is good for (Oladipo),” he said. “We played him two long stretches. But we needed him on both ends of the floor.”
While Oladipo flourished, Arron Afflalo was held under 20 points for the fourth game in a row and the Magic got next to nothing from Glen Davis. Andrew Nicholson had 12 points and 10 rebounds in place of Davis before being ejected in the final minute for a flagrant 2 foul.
Vaughn said Nicholson’s shove of Anderson Varejao was probably a result of thinking the Cavs should have dribbled the ball out with the outcome no longer in doubt.
“I didn’t try to hurt him,” Nicholson said. “I don’t think I pushed him all that hard. It’s just part of the game.”