Magic Lose Heartbreaker to 76ers

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

PHILADELPHIA – To accomplish the kind of Herculean feat that the Orlando Magic were trying to pull off on Saturday night – defeating the powerful Philadelphia 76ers on the road and on the second night of a back-to-back – they ultimately needed everything to fall just right for them.

Unfortunately, guard Evan Fournier said through a frustrating sigh late in the night, his Magic just missed pulling off perfection and instead came up frustratingly short once again.

Down double digits much of the night, Orlando withstood one haymaker after another from superstar center Joel Embiid, rallied again and again and improbably led by two points twice in the final 90 seconds. But when Philadelphia guard J.J. Redick buried a 3-pointer with 17 seconds remaining and the Magic whiffed on a couple of final chances, they were forced to digest a crushing 116-115 loss to the Sixers at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.

``To be able to win on the road against a team like this, you have to be perfect,’’ said Fournier, who couldn’t savor his 31-point, six 3-pointer effort because of the loss. ``We (weren’t) and it cost us the game.’’

Orlando (1-2) got one of the finest all-around performances in the 30-year history of the franchise from center Nikola Vucevic, who racked up his second career triple-double with 27 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. Still, it wasn’t enough on a night when the Magic looked poised to pull off a shocking come-from-behind victory.

That was the case, Magic head coach Steve Clifford said, because his team made far too many critical errors with the game on the line. The veteran coach took little solace in taking the stacked Sixers to the wire and instead stewed over Orlando squandering a chance to grab a winnable game.

``We played better and should have won the game, but we made two huge – huge – defensive game plan mistakes late that we had defended the whole game. You can’t make those mistakes and win on the road against a good team.
``So, whatever, we played better, but that’s not what this league is about,’’ Clifford added. ``That’s a game right there that was there to be won. There were plays to be made and you’ve got to make them.’’

Orlando led 112-110 with 1:24 to play when Terrence Ross beat the expiring shot clock with a 40-foot heave. Fournier again gave the Magic a 114-112 lead with 60 seconds to play, before Embiid hit a free throw and Redick followed up a botched Magic offensive possession with a go-ahead 3-pointer for the Sixers (2-1) with 17 seconds to play. On the shot that proved to be the game-winner, Redick ran Ross over a screen and then reversed back over an Embiid screen again to get free for his eighth three in 13 tries on the night.

Orlando missed a chance to tie when Aaron Gordon couldn’t convert the second of two free throws with 10.3 ticks left.

Ross got a clean look from 25 feet just before the horn, but the shot was offline. Ross, who had 15 points and three 3-pointers, wasn’t the first option on the play, but second-year forward Jonathan Isaac inbounded the ball to him when he flashed open.

``We had options, but we didn’t have a time outs left, and I broke at the last second as an option,’’ Ross said of the inbounds play at the end.

As recently as a year ago, there was precedent for the Magic were trying to accomplish on Saturday night.
Orlando opened last season by winning its opener and bouncing back from a poor second game with an odds-defying victory against LeBron James and Cleveland with some torrid shooting. It looked very much like that could happen again before Redick – a standout with the Magic from 2006-12 – burned his former team again with a 3-point dagger that gave the Sixers the lead in the final seconds.

``Hats off to J.J. because he is one of the best shooters (in the NBA) on the move with that escape dribble that he has,’’ said Ross, who along with Fournier had trouble disrupting Redick’s rhythm. ``It’s tough because you chase him off a screen, he passes it back (to a screener) and then he takes off running again. So, it’s kind of hard to keep up with him, but he was just hot. Hat’s off to him.’’

Orlando (1-2) fell for a second straight time since its stirring season-opening win against Miami, but this loss was much more tolerable than Friday’s 32-point stinker at the Amway Center. This time around, the Magic led by 16 in the early going and charged back to take two leads late in the game. To play well and come up short was of little consolation to Vucevic, who poured everything he had into the game over 37 minutes.

``We can be proud of the way that we fought, but we can’t be satisfied with that because the goal isn’t to play hard and have a close loss,’’ said Vucevic, who hit 10 of 15 shots and all four of his 3-pointers.

``You always learn stuff (about your team). Win or lose, you always have to learn, but I think we’re past the point where we can be OK with the learning part,’’ the 7-foot center added. ``It’s time to turn things around and only be satisfied with winning.’’

Orlando stayed within striking distance by shooting 46.1 percent and drilling 16 3-pointers. Vucevic, the longest-tenured Magic player on the roster, had a triple-double on Dec. 9 of last season when he compiled 31 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in Atlanta. He recorded the second triple-double of his career by notching a 10th assist midway through the fourth period when he found a cutting Gordon for a basket as he was fouled. Like last season’s triple-double in Atlanta, Vucevic wasn’t able to savor the night because it once again came in a loss.

``Vooch was doing everything,’’ Ross raved. ``That’s what he does. He is very versatile, he’s a great utility player, he can score, he can rebound, pass and defend. He was such a big part of us getting back into the game.’’

Last season, Orlando beat the Heat in the opener, lost in frustrating fashion in Brooklyn and then went into Cleveland and stunned James and the Cavs with a red-hot shooting night. Briefly, it looked as if that might be the case again on Saturday as the Magic built a somewhat stunning 26-10 lead in the game’s first seven minutes. However, Embiid (32 points, 10 rebounds and three 3-pointers) and the Sixers ended those hopes by escaping at the end.

Gordon chipped in 20 points and 12 rebounds, while Jonathan Isaac stayed out of foul trouble for the first time this young season and chipped in eight points and six rebounds. Rookie center Mohamed Bamba, who attended high school in the Philadelphia suburb of Westtown, had five points and a 3-pointer in 14 minutes.

Orlando was back in action less than 24 hours after it made just 38.3 percent of its shots in an unsightly 120-88 loss to the rival Charlotte Hornets. Prior to Saturday’s game, Magic coach Steve Clifford dissected the home loss to the Hornets and predicted that Orlando would get back to a better team game going forward.

``It’s the ball movement. It’s not like we haven’t (worked on) it, but it’s been our (weakness),’’ Clifford said. ``As we play these next 10 to 15 games, and we figure out that when we play good, we do this and when we struggle we do this … right now, there’s nothing more important than the ball moving and the ball hitting the paint.

``There were 96 possessions (on Friday) and I think the ball hit the paint 47 times,’’ Clifford continued. ``You’re never going to win an NBA game with that. It wasn’t even 50/50 and it was one of the least amount of times that I can remember in my 19 years (in the NBA). You’re not going to get good shots that way.’’

After completing its first back-to-back set of games of the season, Orlando will receive a much-needed day off on Sunday. The Magic will face the deep and talented Celtics in Boston on Monday night at TD Garden. Orlando won’t play at the Amway Center again until Thursday when they host star guard Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Magic seemed have caught a big break when it was determined midway through the second quarter that Sixers star guard Ben Simmons would not return to the game because of back tightness. Orlando had all kinds of trouble containing Simmons in the early going as he handed out assists on each of Philadelphia’s first four baskets and he scored two more times in his eight minutes of action.

All the loss of Simmons did was put the ball into the hands of Embiid even more. Orlando’s plan coming into the game was to try and keep the 7-foot, 260-pound Embiid from catching the ball in the paint. However, it didn’t matter much where he caught the ball. He almost single-handedly led Philadelphia back fromt eh early 14-point deficit with his 21-point, six-rebound, three-3-pointer effort in the first half alone.

Down 11 at the half, Orlando withstood several haymakers from Embiid and got to the fourth period trailing just 89-86. In the final period, Orlando got within 96-93 when D.J. Augustin hit three free throws. Incredibly, Orlando had a 112-110 lead when Ross drilled the 40-footer as the shot clock expired.

``It wasn’t like I was just getting it up in the air for no reason; I tried to get as much rhythm as I could (into the shot) and get it there,’’ Ross said.

On the Magic’s final try, they hoped to enter the ball into the mid-post to Vucevic and let their hot-shooting big man go to work against Embiid. Instead, Ross got the final heave, and when it was off line, Orlando again had to stomach a dose of heartbreak. From here, Ross said, the Magic have to learn from the errors of Saturday night that cost them a chance at a win and build off the heart that the team played with throughout the night.

``We’re all passionate about winning and we weren’t going to put ourselves in a position where we would just roll over,’’ Ross said, referring to Orlando’s many spirited runs back at the Sixers. ``We played hard and we’ve got to look at the film and learn what we could have done better.’’

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