The elite teams in the NBA all have players they can count on in crunch time. Cleveland has LeBron James, Golden State has Stephen Curry, Miami has Dwyane Wade and the list goes on and on.
Finding those players that want the ball in their hands when the game is on the line is a vital part of a team’s success. These players must earn the trust of the coaching staff and their teammates to get the ball in those late-game situations.
So far this season for the Orlando Magic, it seems like that player is Evan Fournier.
Heading into the 2015-16 season, Tobias Harris found himself as the team’s go-to player in crunch time. Since arriving in Orlando at the 2013 trade deadline, Harris has hit three game-winning shots for the Magic, including two last season.
Last season, the NBA had 39 total game-winning shots, and Harris had two of them. In addition to his two game-winners, Harris has shot 50 percent from the field (20-of-40) within the last five minutes of games when Orlando was either ahead by five points, or behind by five points.
However, it’s become clear that Fournier has taken over that title this season of being the team’s best clutch shooter.
Per NBA stats, only two players have hit seven three-point shots within the last five minutes of games when their teams were either ahead or behind by five points: Steph Curry and Fournier.
Perhaps the biggest indication that Fournier has stepped up late in games is his shooting percentages. He’s shooting 54 percent (15-of-28) from the field, and 58.3 percent from three-point range (7-of-12) within the game’s last five minutes.
“We know he’s going to make good plays,” Harris said. “We know he can score. He’s a threat to shoot from three; he can drive [to the rim]. He’s a guy that we look to get the ball to at the end of the fourth quarter because we know he can create off of the dribble. He’s been great for us, really in the fourth quarter.”
At the start of the season, it wasn’t clear whether or not Fournier would be the team’s starting shooting guard. There were a lot of questions on how new head coach Scott Skiles was going to structure the lineup. But, it was Fournier that was in the starting lineup on opening night, and he has been there ever since.
Over the first month of the season, he emerged as one of the team’s top scoring options. Fournier averaged 17.2 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting from the field and 39 percent from three-point range. It was clear that Skiles made the right decision to include Fournier in the starting lineup.
Since starting out the season on a hot streak, Fournier endured a rough stretch of games during the beginning of December. During a seven-game stretch from Dec. 5 through Dec. 18, Fournier averaged just seven points per game on 31 percent shooting from the field and 33 percent from three-point range.
It seems as though Fournier has put that rough patch behind him as he’s since put together four straight games with at least 12 points, while shooting 48 percent from the field. His confidence is understandably much higher after playing better since the slump. That confidence took an even higher jump when he hit a jumper with 14.2 seconds to go last week against the Houston Rockets that would eventually seal the win for the Magic.
“I’ve been playing obviously better basketball right now,” Fournier said. “It feels good, I can’t lie. [But], it’s a very long season and anything can happen – I could go back to my streaky basketball again.
“I have a pure heart when I play. I’m not thinking about what should I do offensively or how I’m going to get my shots. I just make the right play. You can’t cheat the game. It just makes a huge difference.”
With Fournier proving himself to be a guy that can hit big shots down the stretch, the Magic seem to have a couple of guys in Fournier and Harris that can be counted on in clutch situations. Having two players like that can be extremely beneficial, especially for a team like the Magic that is young and on the rise.
Great players are often defined as those that want the ball in late-game situations and are not afraid to take the last-second shot. Teammates trust Fournier and know that when they pass the ball to him that he’s going to make a good decision. That alone should give Fournier the confidence he needs to continue playing among the league’s best.
“It means a lot,” Fournier said. “[I] just try to make the right decision. That’s not my play. It’s just a play where I have to make the right decisions. Sometimes, it’s going to be a pass or sometimes it’s going to be to shoot. I felt like I had a good shot so I took it.
“When you’re on the court, the defense dictates if you’re going to get the ball or not. Obviously, when you’re on the court, you’re trying to be aggressive. Just make the right play and if you’re open, you obviously got to shoot it. If not, just make the right play.”
Skiles made the decision on Nov. 25 to change the starting lineup. He opted to move Victor Oladipo to the bench and move Channing Frye into the starting lineup. At that point, the team was 6-8 and Skiles felt a change was necessary. Since that change, the Magic have posted an 11-5 record, which is fourth-best in the league, behind only the Warriors, Spurs and Thunder. It wasn’t a popular change with Oladipo, but the move fits into what the team wants to do.
“We just want to keep winning,” Harris said. “That’s our goal. That’s it.”
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