Magic Fall Short in Game 3, Trail Series 2-1

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Fans desperate to see high-leverage, playoff basketball in Orlando for the first time in seven years jammed the Amway Center on Friday night, filling the air with thunderous noise and raw emotion.

In the end, however, their hopes and dreams for the seventh-seeded Orlando Magic were undone by a dismal drought in the third quarter and an inability to consistently make open shots against the second-seeded Toronto Raptors’ elite defense.

The Magic hobbled through a scoreless stretch of 6 ½ minutes in the third quarter and they were never fully able to dig out of a deficit that swelled to as much as 17 points despite a late comeback, resulting in a 98-93 loss to the Raptors in Friday’s Game 3.

Even after a stirring rally that electrified the second-largest crowd to ever see an NBA game in Orlando and pulling with a 3-pointer of the lead, the Magic failed to grab the biggest rebound of the night to cap a frustration-filled finish.

``The disappointing part of tonight in the fourth quarter was the rebounding game,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``(Toronto’s Norman) Powell running down the long (rebound), which led to a three. And then the last (rebound) also. Those five, six, seven or eight seconds ended up being critical in the game. What has been a really good strength for the majority of the year (the rebounding), we came up short with it.’’

The second-largest crowd to ever see an NBA game in Orlando – 19,367 fans – filled the Amway Center on Friday. The only crowd larger in franchise history came on April 12, 2017 when a crowd of 19,458 saw the Magic host the Detroit Pistons. Friday’s crowd bettered the 19,311 on hand on Dec. 31, 2012 when Orlando hosted Miami when LeBron James played for the rival Heat. Afterward, the Magic were disappointed that they couldn’t find a way to satisfy their fans.

``It was amazing, and it was a great feeling having everybody come out and support us and seeing the crowd go crazy with all the shirts and bracelets,’’ Magic guard Terrence Ross said of the Amway Center crowd. ``That was definitely one of my favorite memories playing basketball.’’

After winning Game 1 last Saturday in Toronto, and stoking hopes that they could be poised to grab control in the best-of-seven, first-round series over the heavily favored Raptors, the Magic have dropped two straight to fall behind 2-1 in the series. They very well could be playing for their basketball lives on Sunday when Game 4 is played at the Amway Center.

``It’s an understanding that a series is a series and we have another shot on Sunday to tie it up, and then it really gets interesting,’’ said Magic second-year forward Jonathan Issac, who had 14 points, seven rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots. ``Play basketball and come on Sunday with a hunger and a mindset that this is a big game for us. Most people would say that we’ve got to win it and if we get it done – when we get it done – we’ll be 2-2.’’

Orlando was put in a position where it had to rally late because of its offensive struggles in the third quarter. Seconds after taking their first lead of the night at 59-57 on a 3-pointer by all-star center Nikola Vucevic, the offense ground to a crawl because of Toronto’s long and physical defense. Over the next 6 minutes, 29 seconds, the Magic missed 12 consecutive shots – misses that fueled a 16-0 burst by the Raptors that put Orlando in a 15-point hole.

They would never totally recover from that deficit, resulting in the loss that put them behind in the series for the first time.

``I think tonight again, the turnovers hurt us again, and we just had too many empty possessions, especially against a team like that you can’t have that,’’ said Vucevic, who finally had a breakout performance three games into the series with 22 points, 14 rebounds and six assists. ``I thought some of our looks were good, but we didn’t convert. But I thought it was mostly our turnovers that hurt us.’’

Down the stretch, Orlando got within 94-90 with 1:55 to play by rallying behind two crucial baskets from Ross (24 points and five 3-pointers). From there, Toronto superstar forward Kawhi Leonard appeared to have gotten away with a travel when he twice hopped in the air on a layup attempt before passing to teammate Pascal Siakam, who converted a high-arching floater that pushed Toronto’s lead back to six.

Ross, the hero of many of the Magic’s 11 comebacks this season when trailing at the start of the fourth period, drilled a 3-pointer with 42 seconds to play to get Orlando back within one possession of the lead. However, Leonard’s subsequent miss caromed off the rim and was batted into the air by Marc Gasol and to Kyle Lowry, who got the ball to Leonard. Leonard’s two free throws with 12.9 remaining all but sealed Orlando’s frustrating fate.

``We missed some opportunities by giving some possessions away,’’ said Ross, who made eight of 17 shots and five of 13 3-pointers. ``That’s something we didn’t want to do, but it happened again. We still had a chance at the end, but we gave one more away (by not corralling the rebound).’’

Vucevic, who came into the game averaging just 8.5 points through the first two games, scored 14 of his 22 in the third quarter by making four of the team’s five field goals in the period. Ross did his best to rally Orlando again, but it was far from enough offense on a night when Orlando made just 36.3 percent of its shots and only 13 of 44 threes.

Evan Fournier, who was excitedly anticipating Friday’s playoff game in front of Magic fans, struggled through a nightmarish shooting game. He made just one of 12 field goals and one of eight 3-point shots. Jonathan Isaac scored 14 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked two shots.

``It’s tough (to score), but it’s the playoffs,’’ Ross said. ``They’re trying to take us out of any of the sets that we run, so we’re just trying to look for other ways (to score).’’

Toronto’s forward Pascal Siakam, the heavy favorite to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, scored 30 points on 13 of 20 shooting. Leonard suffered through an otherwise dismal night, making just five of 19 shots for 16 points to go with his 10 rebounds and six turnovers.

``They were after him a little bit more,’’ Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of Orlando’s traps on Leonard. ``A little bit more blitzing, a little more two men on the ball. Listen, that was a gutsy performance by him. He didn’t practice the last couple of days. He hadn’t been feeling well, and for him to go out there and fight through that and play 37 minutes, it was impressive.’’

Danny Green and Kyle Lowry hurt the Magic with 13 and 12 points respectively.

The series shifted to Orlando after the two teams split the first two games in Canada. The Magic stunningly captured the opener 104-101 on a game-winning 3-pointer by Augustin. In Game 2, the Raptors roiled behind Leonard’s 37 points to even the series.

Witnessing the first playoff game at the Amway Center in seven seasons, Magic fans roared with raw noise and emotion in the minutes leading up to tipoff on Friday night. Fans dressed Magic T-shirts – half in blue and the other half in white – flashed strobes in the air and cheered wildly as Stuff the mascot dropped down from Amway Center’s ceiling and as each player was introduced. Former Magic stars Tracy McGrady, Jameer Nelson and Steve Francis dotted the crowd and cheered on their former team.

Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the franchise, predicted long before Friday’s tipoff that the night would be an emotional one for both the players and fans. For six years, the Magic endured a painful rebuilding process that tested the will and patience of everyone involved. Vucevic, a member of the Magic for seven seasons, was impressed that Orlando’s fanbase was loud and proud throughout the game.

``It was disappointing that we didn’t win,’’ Vucevic said when referring to winning for the team’s long-suffering fans. ``It was fun playing in the Amway Center packed like it was tonight. Fans were really into it, they were cheering us, and it stinks that we didn’t deliver a win.’’

Game 4 will be Sunday – also in Orlando. Unlike after the first three games of the series where there were two off days between each game for the squads to rest and make adjustments, the remainder of the series will be played every other day from here on out.

Added Vucevic: ``We have another game on Sunday and obviously we don’t want to go to Toronto down 3-1. We have to secure our business (at home). It’s going to be a very big game for us, and we have to prepare for it the right way. We need our fans again to come and be even louder and support us.’’

Down three at the half and riding the momentum of Ross’ buzzer-beating shot late in the second period, Orlando grabbed its first lead of the night early in the third period. However, little did the Magic know that when Vucevic drilled a 3-pointer to put them up 59-57 that disaster would be lurking around the corner. The Magic would lead once more at 61-60 on two free throws by Vucevic, but they would come in a stretch where they missed 12 straight shots. During that crushing stretch, Toronto ripped off 16 consecutive points to boost its lead as high as 15 points. Isaac ended the drought with a follow slam, but it still led the Magic in a crushing 76-65 hole after three periods.

Vucevic took advantage of Gasol’s foul trouble just after halftime, scoring 14 points on four-of-seven shooting with two threes and four free throws in the third period. The problem, however, was that Vucevic had four of the team’s five field goals in the third period.

The Magic trailed by as much as 11 points in the early going and never led over the first 24 minutes of the game, yet they took the momentum with them to the locker room at halftime after Ross drilled another miracle of a shot. Ross banked a 3-pointer from 41 feet just before the halftime horn, pulling Orlando within 48-45.

``Every possession counts, and we’ve got to capitalize on every possession starting this next game,’’ Ross said of the Magic being forced to play from behind because of their repeated poor starts in first and third quarters of games.

Scoring against Toronto’s stellar defense once again proved to be highly difficult, especially right out of the gate for a second game in a row for the Magic. Down 11-0 in Game 2, the Magic disappointingly fell into a 10-0 hole on Friday after missing their first four shots.

``We’ve just got to get off to a better start,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon (10 points, seven rebounds and seven assists), referring to Orlando’s poor starts in Games 2 and 3. ``We have a way of playing and we’re not doing it at the beginning of games. We’re trying to play our way into games and that’s not going to work with a team like (Toronto). We’ve got to play our game start to finish, and when we do that, we’re good. I believe when we do that on Sunday, I believe that we will win.’’

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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