Magic Still Learning How to Close Out Games

By John Denton
Jan. 28, 2018

HOUSTON – In a matter of 48 topsy-turvy minutes of game action on Saturday, the Orlando Magic displayed everything that is intriguing and infuriating about their makeup as a team.

For most of the first 24 minutes, the rested and ready Magic pushed the pace, shared the ball and remained in attack mode against an Indiana Pacers’ team that was playing for a second time in as many nights. Not only did Orlando shoot 60 percent from the floor, drill five 3-pointers and compile 17 fast-break points in the opening half, it also handed out 13 assists and led by as much as 21 points.

Finally, it seemed as if Orlando was about to end a prolonged losing streak against Indiana – just as it had a week earlier in Boston against the Celtics.

However, rules required that the Magic play the second half and just 18 seconds into the third period Victor Oladipo – formerly of Orlando and now an all-star in Indiana – set the tone for the way things would go with a straight-line drive for a layup.

Oladipo would go on to post 16 points and five assists after halftime, meaning he had a hand in 27 Pacers’ points over the final 24 minutes. When he and Domantas Sabonis had a hand in every basket of Indiana’s tide-turning 15-0 burst in the fourth quarter, the Magic were forced to stomach another frustration-filled loss to the Pacers – this time by a count of 114-112.

So good in the first half, Orlando was badly outplayed in the second half when Indiana turned up the intensity and the sellout crowd of 17,923 inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse roared with noise. The Magic were outscored 61-42 over that final 24 minutes when they couldn’t slow Indiana (63.4 percent shooting) and when they slowed down themselves (just one fast break basket over the final 24 minutes).

``We’ll look at it on film, but it’s going to be ugly,’’ predicted dismayed Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who missed two free throws with 7.9 seconds remaining that could have tied the game and potentially forced overtime. The 22-year-old Gordon proved to be a microcosm of the night for the Magic as he didn’t score in the fourth quarter and didn’t have an assist in the second half.

What had to make the night even harder to digest for Orlando was seeing Oladipo, the No. 2 pick of the 2013 NBA Draft by the Magic, hurt them again. A solid but not great player with the Magic from 2013-16, Oladipo has evolved into an all-star-caliber player after getting dealt to Oklahoma City and then Indiana over the past two seasons.

``I’ve grown a lot, just picking my spots … when to speak and when not to speak and what to say,’’ said Oladipo, who has played a major role in all three of Indiana’s defeats of Orlando this season. ``It’s obviously a learning process for me, but I just want to overwhelm us with positivity. I truly believe when you say positive things, positive things result after that. I just try to stay positive. You gotta play the game with a positivity and a freedom unlike any other to perform at a high level.’’

The helter-skelter two halves of basketball were anything but a positive for Orlando. Instead, they revealed both the intoxicating potential and the head-scratching struggles of the Magic, who dropped to a disappointing 14-34. It was eerily similar to what had happened in the previous 10 days when Orlando played well enough to topple the playoff-bound Minnesota Timberwolves and the Celtics and push LeBron James and Cleveland to the brink, but also inconsistent enough to stumble and lose on Tuesday against slumping Sacramento.

Obviously, Orlando is still greatly missing injured starters Nikola Vucevic (fractured left hand) and Terrence Ross (sprained knee) and top draft choice Jonathan Isaac (ankle soreness), but it seemed to have all the stars in alignment for a victory on Saturday. The Magic came in with the benefit of three days of rest, while the Pacers lost a night earlier in Cleveland and it was still attempting to work center Myles Turner back into the rotation following a nine-game absence due to an elbow injury.

All went well early on until the Pacers mounted a relentless second-half surge behind Oladipo, Sabonis and Lance Stephenson. When the Magic couldn’t withstand that push, they were once again left with little to show for the night.

``It shows that we are playing better, but it’s still not enough, so who cares?’’ fumed Magic guard Evan Fournier, who scored 21 points, drilled three 3-pointers and played the fourth quarter in pain after rolling his ankle when Oladipo got up under him and he landed on the Indy guard’s foot. ``We’ve got to close that one out, man. We’re up 20 (late in the first half) and (Indiana guard) Darren Collison hits a three before the half. You never know and at that point because every possession counts for us. We have to make sure that we’re locked in on every possession.’’

Fournier, a sage studier of the game and someone who arguably has the highest basketball IQ on the Magic, might have hit on just the reason that his team struggles to hold onto big leads. Too often this season, the Magic have surrendered momentum-swinging plays late in quarters and the numbers bear that out.

According to STATS, Inc., the Magic are second in the NBA in possessing the worst point differential over the final 15 seconds of a quarter. After Saturday, Orlando has now scored 138 points in those instances, but it has allowed 182 points in that same timeframe. The Magic’s minus-44-point differential is second only to Philadelphia’s minus-64-point differential over the final 15 seconds of all quarters.

``As a player when you’re down 20 and you hit a big shot to make it 17, that gives you a little momentum,’’ Fournier said, referring to what the Pacers did late in Saturday’s first half. ``They started the third quarter really well and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.’’

Again, the Magic have been good for extended periods of games, but they also tend to struggle at key points in games. Ultimately, it costs them chances to gain any sort of traction moving forward.

Orlando knew full well what was coming in Saturday’s second half and yet it couldn’t do much to stop it from transpiring. Indiana won for a fifth time this season after trailing by at least 19 points, while Orlando lost for a second time after leading by as much as 14 in a game.

``Clearly, we knew they were going to make a run and in the second half their intensity would be far greater and that’s what it looked like,’’ said Magic coach Frank Vogel, who was looking to notch his first win against an Indiana franchise that he led as head coach from 2011-16. ``I thought Indiana outplayed us. They started the (second) half with two straight-line drives and that disappointed me, but they’re a winning team for a reason. They played well as a team and they got it done.

``We’ll keep hammering it and keep working to get better at it,’’ he added.

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.