By John Denton
March 15, 2013

But the Magic cranked up the defense after the horrifying first half, turned the ball over just twice in the second half and had three shots to cut it to a one-point game late in the fourth quarter. Afterward, Afflalo was thinking what could have been had he been able to connect on a pull-up jumper and a wide-open 3-pointer.

``They tell me to be as positive as I can with myself but it just seems like every game it comes down to some makeable shots that can get you over the hump,’’ Afflalo said. ``Our guys played so hard and that pull-up jumper or any of the open threes – you are going to miss shots – but you just know if one or two of those shots go down it’s a completely different game.

``But give the Thunder credit because they withstood a run by us,’’ Afflalo added. Orlando dramatically picked up its intensity after halftime, deflecting several passes and forcing the Thunder into numerous mistakes. The improved defense helped the Magic to get back within seven points of the lead late in the third quarter. But Durant (26 points) and Russell Westbrook (23 points, six rebounds and six assists) followed with back-breaking 3-pointers to crush the Magic’s spirits.

Orlando center Nikola Vucevic had 21 points and 14 rebounds to lead Orlando’s second-half charge. Nelson continued his run of strong play with 26 points and seven assists, while Afflalo played exceptionally well after halftime and had 20 points. The Magic made 43.5 percent of its shots and drilled seven 3-pointers.

Tobias Harris continued to stay in attack mode on the offensive end with 19 points, while Harkless had 12 points and held Durant to an eight of 15 shooting night and forced him into six turnovers.

``We got a lot, but once we started getting stops on defense we were fine,’’ said Harris, who will make his return to Milwaukee this weekend. ``It shows a lot about us to continue to battle back. Being down that many points it would be easy to put your head down, but we fought back as hard as we could.’’

Friday’s game was the first of a seven-day, four-game trip for the Magic. All four foes on the trip – Milwaukee (Sunday afternoon), Indiana (Tuesday) and New York (Wednesday) – would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Clearly motivated by its poor defensive effort in the first half, Orlando dug in defensively in the third quarter and limited the Thunder to 22 points in the third quarter. And the inside-outside duo of Vucevic (nine thired-quarter points) and Afflalo (eight third-quarter points) allowed Orlando to get within 89-82 with a minute to play in the third period.

``With a guy like (Durant) you aren’t going to stop him, but we were just trying to be physical with him, crowd his space and get up into him,’’ said Harris, who teamed with Harkless and E’Twaun Moore in guarding Durant. ``We made other guys make plays, that’s what we tried to do.’’

But OKC ended the period with a wing three from Durant and another 3-pointer from Westbrook to push its lead back to 95-84 by the end of the third period.

Unable to slow down the Thunder in the halfcourt or on the fastbreak, Oklahoma City led by as much as 27 points early on and had a 73-56 lead by halftime. OKC made a dazzling 22 of its first 29 shots (75.9 percent) – with many of them coming on dunks or point-blank looks at the rim.

The Magic were very sound on the offensive end in the first half, hitting 50 percent of their shots and five 3-pointers. But the inability to get many stops undermined the effort. For the first half, the Thunder made 27 of 42 shots (64.3 percent).

OKC’s 73 points were the most allowed in any half by the Magic this season, topped the 67 given up against Sacramento in February. It nearly equaled the all-time worst in franchise history of 78 points allowed in 1990 against Houston.

``The truth of the matter is that we’re still learning how to play defense in this league and it’s not an easy thing,’’ Afflalo said. ``You can draw up all of the roatations you want but when you get out on the court and deal with all of the different speeds of players and dynamics it’s difficult. But as a young team we’re still learning to play defense. We score enough points, but it’s about not taking an entire first half to adjust to how to defend a team. There were just way too many dunks and rebounds, but we did a good job in the second half cutting that out. As time goes on we’ll be able to implement (better defense) from the beginning of the game.’’


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