Magic Know They Must Play With More Energy For Entire 48 Minutes

Magic have looked sluggish in third quarters of games so far this season
by John Denton

ORLANDO – Emboldened by last spring’s clutch run to the playoffs and armed with unprecedented continuity with the return of 12 players, the Orlando Magic collectively thought they had matured beyond the point of falling prey to the pitfalls that swamped them on Sunday at the Amway Center.

However, as the Magic were once again reminded during a puzzling 109-102 home loss to the shorthanded Indiana Pacers, there continues to be more questions than answers for them thus far in the young NBA season.

Bothered most of the season by offensive woes, the Magic (3-7) saw their energy and execution bottom out in a woeful third quarter and then their defense uncharacteristically struggled against a gritty Pacers team that scored time and again on pull-up, mid-range jumpers and off cuts to the rim. What Orlando was left with was another head-scratching loss with which to try and figure out.

``That’s disappointing for sure,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, one of the few bright spots with his 22 points and six 3-pointers. ``It’s definitely disappointing for us to lose that way. This was a much-needed game for sure. We have a five-game home stretch and we’ve got to take these wins. But this was definitely a disappointing loss.’’

Added head coach Steve Clifford, who usually can pinpoint his team’s problems before even reviewing the game footage on video and was a near loss for words: ``I’ll tell you, I’m surprised.’’

Orlando had good reason to feel surprised on Sunday after playing a nearly flawless first half and then falling flat in the second half. After shooting 55.3 percent from the floor, burying eight 3-pointers and scoring 60 points in the first half, the Magic mustered just 42 points, seven threes and 35.7 percent shooting over the final 24 minutes.

Things don’t figure to get any easier for the Magic, who host the star-studded Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday at the Amway Center. After that, Orlando has home games against San Antonio (Friday) and Washington (Sunday) to wrap up the longest home stand of the season. Then, comes nine days and four games on the road before the Thanksgiving holiday, and the Magic know that their sense of urgency needs to pick up soon in order to get the season back on track.

``For us, really every game is important,’’ said veteran center Nikola Vucevic, who couldn’t enjoy moving into third place on the Magic’s all-time scoring list on Sunday because of the loss. ``We’re 3-7 and obviously that’s not where we want to be, so every game is important. These (three) games left at home are important and we need to try and get all three. … We’ve got to find a way to turn this thing around.’’

To do that, the Magic will likely have to rely on a defense that helped them reverse their course back in the spring and finish last season 22-9. This season, Orlando ranks second in the NBA in points allowed per game (97), second in blocked shots (7.3), seventh in field goal percentage allowed (43 percent), sixth in 3-point percentage allowed (32.3 percent) and sixth in overall defensive rating (101.1 points allowed per 100 possessions).

Despite having their issues slowing down Indiana on Sunday, the Magic still blocked a season-high 12 shots. Led by the NBA’s second-best shot-blocker, Jonathan Isaac (3.0 stuffs a game), the Magic have swatted 10 or more shots in three straight games. It’s been more than six years since Orlando has accomplished that feat.

Of particular issue for the Magic now is turning around a trend of poor play in the third quarters of games. On Sunday, more third-quarter struggles changed the entire tenor of the night. Not only did Indiana score the first 12 points of the second half, but it held a 30-17 edge in the period to grab the lead away from the Magic.

On the season, Orlando is averaging just 23.9 points in the third quarter of games – its second-lowest production in any quarter (23.4 points per game in second quarters is the worst). Still, the Magic’s 23.9 points per game in third quarters ranks 28thin the NBA and their overall shooting (42.7 percent, 25thin the NBA) and 3-point accuracy (32.5 percent, 22ndin the NBA) in third periods also is lagging.

``That third quarter, I’m a little disappointed with the way that we came out,’’ said Magic point guard Markelle Fultz, who had eight points, four assists, a steal and a block while once again being on a minutes’ restriction of 24 minutes. ``It wasn’t just on me or anybody in particular; it’s just a team thing. So, that’s something I’m going to look at in the next game – trying to come out better in that third quarter.’’

In hopes of bringing more balance in terms of shooting, size and defense to the first and second units, Clifford changed the Magic’s rotations following the fifth game of the season. With D.J. Augustin as the starting point guard alongside of Aaron Gordon, Isaac, Vucevic and Fournier, the Magic had a 2-3 record and ranked 30thin the NBA in offensive rating (95 points per 100 possessions) and seventh in defensive rating (99.9 points per 100 possessions). With Fultz as the starting point guard, the Magic have gone 1-4 and rank 19thin the NBA in offensive rating (104.8 points per 100 possessions) and ninth in defensive rating (102.9 points per 100 possessions).

``Against Memphis (on Friday), Markelle had 14 drives into the paint and D.J. had 13, and if you look at our team, we need them both to play well,’’ said Clifford, who is hopeful that Fultz will be able to handle a bigger workload going forward as the restrictions are lifted off his time on the court. ``That’s the beauty of D.J. – he doesn’t care if he starts and he doesn’t care if he comes off the bench as long as he gets his minutes. And he’s always ready to play. But they have helped us (with penetrating the paint) because that’s an area that we’ve struggled in. So, I think with the groups that they’re playing with, they can both function well. And having two point guards, their penetration abilities really sets up a lot of things.’’

The Magic are set up as a team to be one that shares the ball offensively, relies on their positional versatility and a towering, long-armed defense. While Orlando worked that plan to perfection last season, it is far from foolproof and the margin for error is still rather thin. And, when the effort and focus are missing – as was the case in Sunday’s sluggish start to the second half – the results are often predictable. That’s something the Magic have to change going forward, Gordon said, or they’ll keep getting what’s coming to them.

``Coach (Clifford) always talks about, `You get what you deserve in this league,’ and (on Sunday night) we definitely didn’t deserve a win,’’ said Gordon, whose Magic got outscored 58-42 over the second half and outrebounding 44-37 in the game.

``These games, there’s a lot of them, but they go quick,’’ Gordon added later, referring to his team needing to play with more of a sense of urgency. ``We’ve got to get it together as quickly as we can. This (Sunday game) is definitely one that we needed, but we’ve got another one on Wednesday.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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