PORTLAND – In the 5 ½ games prior to Monday night’s second half, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon had guarded a veritable all-star team and not even the explosive firepower of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Ben Simmons and Paul Millsap could put a dent in his defensive armor.
Then, out of nowhere, Gordon’s body betrayed him, and left him feeling about as helpless as most defenders usually do while trying to check superstars such as James, Durant and Leonard.
Forced to remain in bowels of Oracle Arena because of debilitating back spasms, Gordon could only look on at television coverage in disgust as his defensive assignment for the night, Durant, got to cooking in the second half. By the time the Golden State superstar buried a cold-blooded, straight-on 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac with 21 seconds to play, Durant had scored 29 of his game-high 49 in the second half and lifted the defending champion Warriors by the Magic, 116-110.
The only thing that hurt Gordon more than his stiff back was his bruised pride.
``It was terrible,’’ Gordon said of having to watch Durant go off from a TV set in the locker room. ``It was like a nightmare.’’
The Magic (10-11) undoubtedly would agree with Gordon’s assessment after they led by as much as 18 points twice – at 58-40 late in the second quarter and at 76-58 midway through the third period – only to see the three-time-champion Warriors rally. Durant scored 29 second-half points by making nine of 17 shots and all nine of his free throws and Klay Thompson had 19 points and five threes in the fourth quarter alone. Those two scored 32 of Golden State’s 37 fourth-quarter points, allowing the Warriors to escape with an 11th consecutive defeat of Orlando.
``In other years it felt like we were trying to steal one here; tonight, it felt like we let one go,’’ muttered an irked Gordon, who classified himself as ``day-to-day’’ for Wednesday’s game in Portland because of the back troubles.
Clearly, things could have been different in the second half had Gordon – the Magic’s best on-ball defender all season – had been able to play in the second half. Over the previous two weeks, Gordon had done a phenomenal job in guarding Philadelphia’s Simmons (three-of-five shooting, nine points), Los Angeles’ James in Orlando (eight-of-19 shooting, 22 points), Toronto’s Leonard (eight-of-16 shooting, 18 points), Denver’s Millsap (five-of-eight shooting, 14 points) and James in Los Angeles on Sunday (eight-of-14 shooting, 24 points). In that five-game stretch, Simmons (15.5 points per game), James (28.3 points per game) and Leonard (24.7 points per game) failed to get their season averages in scoring against Gordon while Millsap (12.9 points per game) barely eclipsed his season mark.
On Monday, Durant had 20 points by halftime and 26 by the time a hobbled Gordon mercifully asked out of the game because the pain in his back reduced his mobility. However, nothing was easy for Durant as he missed four of his first five shots and seven of 11 to begin the game.
Here are what might have been the most telling statistics of the game: When Gordon hobbled off the floor with 6:35 left in the third quarter, Durant had made just 10 of 21 shots and two of five 3-pointers and Orlando led 70-58. With Gordon out, Durant hit six of 12 shots, two of five 3-pointers and nine of nine free throws for 23 points the rest of the way.
``We wore down,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said, referring to how much his team missed Gordon’s defense on Durant in the second half. ``Evan (Fournier) was playing hurt and I thought he did a real good job on Thompson, especially in the first half. I got concerned because (Fournier) was starting to limp around out there, too. (Not having Gordon) screwed up our rotations and the group that we had out there in the third quarter, that wouldn’t have been the group (on the floor). That’s really, to me, where the game got away.’’
The 23-year-old Gordon said he’d never experienced back spasms before Monday, but he admitted ``it’s been creeping up on me for a couple of days now.’’ He said he felt a twinge in his back early in the third period when he tried to get back to Durant on a screen-and-roll play. Maybe, just maybe, the enormous weight of having to guard the likes of James (twice), Durant, Leonard, Simmons and Millsap finally took its toll on the strapping, 6-foot-9, 230-pound Gordon.
``They’re all good players, they have a lot of know-how and a lot of energy,’’ Gordon said of having to check a Who’s Who of NBA stars in recent weeks. ``But it would have been nice to be able to stay out on the floor (on Monday).’’
As if being forced to watch Durant’s offensive explosion from the locker room wasn’t enough of an indignity, Gordon – a native of nearby San Jose, Calif. – wasn’t able to fully perform before the approximately 40 friends and family at the game and in an Oracle Arena suite high above the Magic’s bench. The group had little to cheer for on the Magic’s offensive end of the floor as Gordon missed all six of his shots. However, he was so good defensively against Durant that the Magic were a plus-11 on the scoreboard in Gordon’s 22 minutes on the floor.
``You know (Gordon), he would have played through it,’’ said Clifford, who has noted repeatedly this season that the forward has played through a myriad of injuries. ``But when he says, `I’ve got to come out,’ you know he’s in a lot of pain.’’
In the end, Gordon could only look on in disgust from the locker room as Durant poured in big shot after big shot to lift Golden State past Orlando. In pained him even more having to see the 21-year-old Isaac try to guard Durant. Gordon confidently predicted that would have given the Magic a better shot at slowing down Durant because of his experience in battling the superstar forward through the years.
``I watched the game and being able to guard K.D., I know how he plays and for somebody like Jon (Isaac) to go out there and it be the first time he’s guarded (Durant), I feel bad,’’ Gordon said. ``I just feel terrible that I wasn’t able to help my team win.’’
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