ORLANDO – Various computer models have the Orlando Magic as heavy favorites to make the playoffs largely because of their improved play of late and the relative ease of their remaining schedule.
On Friday, the Magic got a rude reminder that performance matters much more than predictions, especially when it comes to avoiding critical errors late in games with the outcome still hanging in the balance.
An Orlando franchise that hasn’t made the postseason since 2012, obviously, is desperate to get into the playoffs, but it didn’t show down the stretch on Friday as it was plagued by a host of errors ranging from missed free throws, to a substitution mistake, to fouling an opposing 3-point shooter in the closing seconds.
Evan Fournier hit a clutch, go-ahead 3-pointer with 6.3 seconds to play, but it was all for naught when Magic forward Aaron Gordon fouled Chicago standout Lauri Markkanen with 1.5 seconds to play. Markkanen drilled two of three free throws, and when Fournier couldn’t get off a potential game-winning shot before the final horn, it allowed the Bulls to escape with a 110-109 defeat of the Magic at the Amway Center.
Orlando (27-33) saw the five-game winning streak it built up prior to the break for the NBA All-Star Game come to a disappointing end. The Magic, who opened the day just a half-game out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, were trying to win a sixth consecutive game for the first time since the 2010-11 season. Instead, they lost – and deservedly so – because of far too many self-inflicted errors late in the night.
``It was just a stupid mistake,’’ Gordon said of fouling the 7-foot Markkanen with 1.5 ticks remaining. ``It was just a young, young rookie mistake almost. I’m just disappointed, disappointed in myself and nobody is more disappointed than me.’’
Then, there was Magic coach Steve Clifford, who fully accepted the responsibility of not having all-star center Nikola Vucevic in the game with 8.7 seconds remaining when Chicago center Robin Lopez rebounded a missed shot and converted a put-back layup that put the Bulls up 108-106. While Chicago (15-44) had played with a smaller lineup earlier in the fourth period, the Magic didn’t notice the Bulls getting Lopez back into the game with 33 seconds remaining – the job of the entire coaching staff, and not just the head coach.
``So, obviously, in every game there are a lot of factors that go into winning and losing and I’ll tell (the media) the same thing that I just told the (Magic players): You can say whatever at the end – free throws, fouling and all that stuff, but nobody made a bigger mistake in that game than me,’’ Clifford said candidly. ``I’ve been doing this a long time, and if you ask the (head coaches) I’ve (worked) for and they’ll say it’s what I’m good at, but I didn’t see that they put Lopez back in the game. We ended up too small out there and we ended up giving up and offensive rebound there. That was as big a possession as the foul (by Gordon) and the missed free throws (by veteran point guard D.J. Augustin). So, that is totally on me.’’
Said Gordon: ``It’s not true (that Clifford cost the team the game); the biggest mistake was me fouling at the 3-point line at the end of the game. (Clifford) likes to take some of the pressure off his players and that’s why he’s a great coach. But the biggest mistake was definitely the foul at the end of the game.’’
Augustin, Orlando’s best player most of Friday and someone who came into the night tied for 12th in the NBA in free throw accuracy at 87.3 percent, missed two free throws with 34 seconds to play and the game tied at 106. It was the third time on the night that a Magic player went to the line and misfired on both free throw attempts. For the game, Chicago drilled 18 of 19 free throws, while the Magic made just 13 of 24 attempts from the line.
Afterward, Augustin – an 11-year NBA veteran – refused to blame the eight-day layoff between games for his and the team’s struggles from the free throw line.
``Nahhh, you can’t blame it on that,’’ said Augustin, who finished with 14 points, five rebounds, five assists and four 3-pointers. ``We’ve just got to go to the line and make free throws. Some nights it doesn’t go in and some nights it does. Tonight, was one of those nights (when it didn’t go in).’’
Fournier – who made two game-winning shots for the Magic earlier in the season – seemed to have rescued his team once again when he drilled a straight-on 3-pointer with 6.3 seconds remaining that put Orlando up 109-108. Fournier, who is desperately hoping Orlando can make the playoffs for the first time in his five seasons wearing Magic pinstripes, scored 22 points and handed out five assists.
``A tough loss, man, especially being the first game after the break when we had momentum with five wins in a row,’’ Fournier said. ``So, this one is a tough one to swallow, I’m not going to lie.’’
There was one double-digit lead all night (by Chicago briefly in the third quarter) and the two teams traded the lead 23 times and saw the score tied 17 times. Ten of lead changes and four ties came in the fourth quarter – none more compelling that the back-and-forth following Fournier’s 3-pointer and Markkanen’s free throws.
Gordon reacted to Otto Porter Jr. (17 points) driving the ball at Magic center Nikola Vucevic, leaving Markkanen, who finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds and four 3-pointers. As he tried scrambling back to Markkanen – a fellow University of Arizona product like himself – Gordon collided with the Bulls’ big man as he was hoisting a 3-point shot.
``I was trying to help Vooch out and I should have just stayed home and allowed Vooch to make that one-on-one play,’’ Gordon said. ``(Markkanen) got a step on me and I thought I was going to be able to block (the 3-point shot), but it’s a 7-foot shooter and I wasn’t going to be able to block it.’’
Vucevic, who played in his first NBA All-Star Game on Sunday, added 19 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists for a Magic team that shot 50.6 percent from the floor and just 54.2 percent from the free throw line. Gordon had an abysmal night shooting the ball early in the game, but still finished with 17 points.
Zach LaVine chipped in 22 points and five 3-pointers for Chicago, which made just 44.4 percent of its field goals. What upset Clifford the most was Orlando’s repeated blown coverages against Markkanen – the second time it has happened this season in losses to the Bulls.
``Those were all two-on-two coverages and there are no rotations with a guy who shoots the ball like him and that was the most disappointing part,’’ Clifford said. ``The only thing we did (Thursday in practice) – we did drills specifically so that wouldn’t happen with him and Porter. It was the biggest emphasis of the (Friday) morning (shoot-around session). That part of (the blown coverages), you know, is you’re not ready to play in these games if you can’t do that.’’
Orlando’s loss, combined by Detroit’s win over the Atlanta Hawks on Friday, dropped the Magic into 10th place in the East and 1 ½ games out of the final playoff spot. Despite being projected to make the playoffs by sites such as FiveThirtyEight.com and BasketballReference.com, the Magic got a taste on Friday of the difficulty that lies ahead for them in playing highly significant games on a nightly basis.
``It’s never easy anyway and it never gets easier,’’ Fournier said. ``We lost a tough one tonight, but we have to move forward to be honest. There’s still a lot of basketball left.’’
In the days leading up to the break for the NBA All-Star game, Orlando ripped off five straight victories, giving it the second-longest active winning streak in the NBA. Not only did the Magic topple Minnesota, Milwaukee, Atlanta, New Orleans and Charlotte, but they set franchise records by winning three straight road games by at least 16 points and winning consecutive games by at least 30 points.
That sort of momentum was but a rumor most of Friday night as the Magic had their struggles on both ends of the floor. Still, a Magic squad with 22 games remaining to try and track down a playoff spot has the NBA’s second-easiest remaining scheduled according to current winning percentages.
``Too many mistakes that we shouldn’t have (committed),’’ Vucevic vowed. ``We knew what we had to to do and we didn’t do it well enough to win. They played well, they competed and that’s why they won the game.’’
Up two at the half following a poor finish to the second quarter, Orlando saw its lead disappear in a mostly defenseless third period. The Magic yielded 38 points in the third by allowing the Bulls to make 14 of 24 shots with five 3-pointers. Markkanen scored 12 points and drilled three 3-pointers in the period to give the Bulls an 89-82 edge heading into the fourth.
That was an ominous sign for the Magic considering that they were just 6-25 previously this season when trailing after three periods.
Off for five days over the break and with just two practices prior to Friday’s game, the Magic were sloppy throughout much of the first half and were fortunate to have a 53-51 lead on the Bulls.
Now, after dropping a home game and failing to beat a team far behind them in the standings, the Magic certainly have some ground to make up over the next six weeks. Gordon said the Magic will need to pull off a major upset somewhere along the way, and they will get that shot on Sunday afternoon when playing in Toronto – winners of the NBA’s longest active winning streak at seven games.
``We’re going to have to really fight now and that’s a game that we needed. We’re going to have to steal a couple later on,’’ Gordon said. ``It’s not going to get any easier, but we’re going to step up to the challenge.’’
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