Denton: Finishing Games Next Priority on Improvement List

By John Denton
April 6, 2013

CLEVELAND – In the NBA, there is no Mariano Rivera and no running game to salt away the clock. In the NBA, the ability to close out games is usually built off experience – and often it is bad experience.

The youth-filled and injury-depleted Orlando Magic are having to learn the lessons of closing out games the hard way these days. The Magic made a furious comeback on Monday in Houston to get close, but they couldn’t get over the hump in an eight-point loss. And on Friday, the Magic had two chances at beating the Chicago Bulls, but never got off a shot and had to stomach a one-point loss.

``Absolutely, the next step for us is learning to close,’’ Magic rookie guard DeQuan Jones said. ``It starts with playing 48 minutes and playing the entire game. (Closing) just comes with experience and being in those situations. It’s just something for us to build on and get better doing.’’

The Magic (19-58) will get another shot at closing out a game on Sunday when they play the Cavaliers (23-52) in Cleveland on Sunday night at 6 p.m. It is the last game of the Magic’s longest road trip of the season – a five-game, 10-day trip.

The Magic had Saturday off to pick up the pieces from Friday’s 87-86 loss in Chicago. The Magic led after each of the first three quarters and had a five-point advantage early in the fourth quarter. But an 18-4 spurt by the Bulls put the Magic into a seemingly insurmountable nine-point hole with four minutes to play.

But as has been the case with this Magic team all season, it refused to go away quietly. Four straight Magic baskets – capped by a thunderous dunk by Jones in transition – got Orlando within one point of the lead. Orlando got two more defensive stops, but they couldn’t take the lead when Nik Vucevic had the ball stripped out of his hands on a post move and Beno Udrih slipped while driving in the final seconds of the game.

The heartbreaking result left the Magic 4-10 this season in games decided by five points or less. Also, they are 13-12 this season when taking the lead into the fourth quarter.

``Our next step is closing out games,’’ said Vucevic, who had 16 points, 15 rebounds and two blocked shots against the Bulls. ``We’ve lost a lot of close games and a lot of games where we had the lead but let it slip away. But this is part of the process of us getting better and getting more mature.’’

To make matters worse for the Magic on Friday night, they were never able to get the Bulls to the free throw line and possibly get the ball back for another shot at tying or winning the game. Orlando fouled once down the sttetch, but didn’t foul in the final seconds as time ran off the clock. Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn planned to use it as a teaching moment for his young basketball team.

``We needed to foul and then foul again because we had one (foul) to give,’’ Vaughn said. ``So it’s a great lesson for us. We’ll look at it on film and grow from each game. That’s what this whole thing is about for us.’’

On a team filled with five rookies and three second-year players, Vaughn is using just about every sequence from games as teachable moments for his players. Closing out games, in particular, takes especially precise execution and concentration because of the need to get the ball in the right places at the right time. In time, those decisions will come more natural to a Magic squad that is still getting used to playing together.

``I look at the small steps that we’re taking,’’ Vaughn said. ``We go to San Antonio and play a good first half and not a really good second half. We come back (on Friday) and we’re up at halftime and how do we respond? We come out with much better effort and much better attention to detail.

``We get down nine with 4 minutes to go in the game, but our guys locked in and gave ourselves a chance to win the game,’’ Vaughn continued. ``So those are the steps that we want to continue to take. We’ll continue to grow and we’ll learn how to finish games and learn how to execute in the end and then we’ll learn how to do it back-to-back. These are great steps for us.’’

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