LOS ANGELES – Quite possibly, no sequence summed up the Orlando Magic’s tough-luck afternoon and their recent history of struggles against the Los Angeles Clippers more than one early in Sunday’s fourth quarter.
With the Magic within two points of the lead early in the final period, L.A. center Montrezl Harrell converted a follow-up dunk as he was fouled and went to the free throw line to try and complete the three-point play. When his free throw was badly off the mark, the awkward carom hit off the hand of Magic rookie center Mo Bamba and rolled out of bounds. As they have done for years, the Clippers made Orlando pay for the rebounding gaffe. Seconds later, long-time Magic killer Lou Williams buried a 27-foot 3-pointer when the Magic mistakenly went ``under’’ a Harrell screen to give the Clippers’ best late-game scorer an open look.
The Clippers wiped out a 15-point deficit in the first half and then used an 11-0 spurt in the fourth quarter – one that featured Harrell’s free-throw miss and Williams’ deep 3-pointer – to beat the Magic 106-96 at Staples Center.
``Really, this game just came down to them being more physical and hitting shots that we couldn’t hit,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who like many of his teammates struggled through a poor shooting night.
Losers two nights earlier in Minnesota after blowing a 19-point edge, Orlando (17-22) lost its second straight game on Sunday by frittering away an early 15-point lead. Also, the Magic lost their 11th consecutive game against the Clippers (23-16) – six of them coming in Los Angeles. Orlando haven’t beaten Los Angeles anywhere since Nov. 16, 2013, and they haven’t beaten the Clippers in L.A. since January of 2013.
Orlando whipped the Lakers in L.A. back in November and it was hopeful of winning there again on Sunday for a season sweep in the City of Angels. However, those hopes died following the 11-0 Clippers’ run early in the fourth.
As frustrated as he was about the poor finish that sealed the Magic’s fate, Aaron Gordon was bothered by Orlando allowing another strong start to go by the wayside.
``We’ve got to figure out a way to maintain,’’ said Gordon, who had 17 points despite making just five of 17 shots and two of seven 3-point tries. ``We get up to big leads because maybe they’re not ready or whatever, but we’ve got to push that lead out and continue to play the way that got us the lead. We have to capability of handling games and we’ve shown it before, so we’ve got to figure out a way.’’
Orlando, which dropped to 1-3 on its longest road trip of the season, fought through a series of struggles to get the game tied at 72 on three free throws by Terrence Ross with 10:22 to play. However, the Clippers scored the game’s net 11 points to break the game open. Nine of those points came from the second-string duo of Williams (17 points in the game) and Harrell (nine points and eight rebounds). Ultimately, Los Angeles would lead by as much as 18 points in a one-sided fourth quarter.
Magic center Nikola Vucevic nearly set a Magic rebounding record in the first quarter and nearly got to his own franchise mark for rebounds in a game. He finished with 16 points, 24 rebounds and eight assists – nearly notching the third triple-double of his career. Vucevic still holds the franchise record for rebounds in a game (29) after setting that record on Dec. 31, 2012 – an overtime loss to the Miami Heat and LeBron James. He had 11 boards in the first quarter, 14 at halftime and 23 through three periods and he finished with 24.
``Winning is above everything,’’ said Vucevic, who has had a string of impressive individual performances in losses throughout his seven seasons with the Magic. ``(Grabbing 24 rebounds) was good, but it wasn’t good enough.’’
There were plenty of misses for Vucevic to potentially rebound as the Magic shot just 37.1 percent from the floor and made only nine of 31 3-point shots. Up two at the half, Orlando was five of 20 in the third quarter and only nine of 21 over the final 12 minutes to allow the surprising Clippers to pull away for another victory.
Orlando shot 39.6 percent from the floor in the first half, but only 34.1 percent in the second.
``I’ll be honest, without watching the film, and I’m usually not like this, but we missed a bunch of wide-open shots and drives in the lane that you’ve got to make if you’re going to beat a team as good as (the Clippers) are,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``Our spot-up threes, sometimes the ball doesn’t go in the basket. We might have been hesitant, but I thought our quality of shots were good the whole game, frankly.’’
Vucevic put up monster numbers on the glass, but he had trouble consistently getting open for shots when the Clippers double-teamed him. Playing with a narrow margin of victory, Orlando never could find a consistent scorer.
Fournier (12 points) made only five of 11 shots, while second-year forward Jonathan Isaac (one-of-seven shooting and zero-of-four accuracy from 3-point range for two points) struggled when Clippers’ forward Danilo Gallinari repeatedly backed off and dared him to shoot from 3-point range.
``I took two guys out just because they were hesitant to shoot just because they had missed the open ones. I mean, you’ve got to keep shooting,’’ Clifford countered. ``I thought our effort was good enough and I thought our defense, for the most part, was fine. … But, tonight, was the first time – and I just told them this – that our effort was more than good enough, and we competed well, but we’ve got to make shots. I thought we missed a ton of makeable shots.’’
Ross, Orlando’s best reserve all season, had eight points, but he made only two of eight shots. Bamba, who played especially well early in the game, finished with eight points and 10 rebounds.
Former Magic forward Tobias Harris missed his first six shots, but he recovered and finished with 28 points in 35 minutes. Williams, who scored 28 points in the Clippers’ defeat of the Magic in Orlando in late October, had three of his four field goals in the fourth quarter.
At the end of the game, Gordon sought out Harris for an embrace. The former Magic standout is in the midst of his finest professional season and Gordon wanted to congratulate a player he grew close during their time together in Orlando.
``They have a lot of trust in Tobias, they’re playing through him a lot and he’s really playing well in that pick-and-roll,’’ Gordon said. ``I know how hard Tobias works and I just wanted to tell him how proud I am of him.’’
The Clippers shot 43 percent from the floor and drilled eight 3-pointers.
Orlando was playing just two nights after suffering one of its biggest collapses of the season in a 120-103 loss in Minnesota. The Magic led the Timberwolves by as much as 19 points before their defensive struggles cost them a much-needed victory.
Coming into the game, the Clippers ranked first in the NBA in free throw attempts per game (29.3), while the Magic ranked 30th(18.4). That prompted Orlando coach Steve Clifford to surmise that ``our biggest weakness is their biggest strength.’’ Orlando actually had one more free throw attempt in the first half (seven) than the Clippers (six). For the game, the Magic made 21 of 29 free throws, while the Clippers sank 18 of 23 from the charity stripe.
The Magic’s longest road trip of the season – six games spread over 11 nights – continues on Monday night when they play the much-improved Kings in Sacramento. The Kings whipped the Magic 107-99 on Oct. 30.
The Magic’s long, winding road trip started in Charlotte and then took them to Chicago and Minnesota before hitting Los Angeles. After playing in Sacramento on Monday, Orlando will next head to Utah to face the Jazz on Wednesday. It is the first time in the 30-year history of the franchise that the Magic have gone on a road trip where they have played games in all four U.S. time zones.
``Those are big games coming up,’’ Fournier said. ``We’re right in the middle of a storm and it’s kind of crazy. We have to be mentally tough and stay with it. Overall, we didn’t play a bad game tonight, so we’ve got to keep playing the right way and we’ll be alright.’’
Up two at the half after blowing most of their early 15-point edge, the Magic missed their first five shots of the third period, forcing them to play from behind most of the second half. Orlando made just five of 20 shots in the third period and headed into the fourth period trailing the Clippers, 70-67.
Vucevic was one of the few bright spots in the third period as he grabbed nine boards, giving him 23 for that point in the game.
Clearly irked with how they lost in Minnesota two nights earlier, the Magic came out locked in and ready in the first half. Orlando led 28-18 at the end of the first quarter and was up by as much as 15 before the Clippers got untracked and back into the game. The Magic lost most of their lead in the second quarter, but they still managed to cling to a 47-42 edge at halftime.
Already the franchise’s all-time leader in rebounds in a game (29 in 2012), Vucevic grabbed 11 of the Magic’s first 13 rebounds. The 11 rebounds were one shy of Dwight Howard’s Magic record for rebounds in a quarter. Howard had 12 rebounds in a quarter twice in 2006. Vucevic laid the foundation for another big night with a stellar first half, contributing 10 points, 14 rebounds and six assists in the first 24 minutes.
Orlando did a stellar job defensively on Harris (0 of 6) and Gallinari (1 of 7) in the early going. However, they heated up late in the second period with Gallinari scoring 11 points and Harris adding 10.
``I think we went away from how we were defending and we started losing our defensive principles,’’ said Gordon, who smothered Harris early on.
Gordon, a native of San Jose who will have dozens of friends and family members at Monday’s game in Sacramento, said the Magic have hit a critical juncture in their lengthy road trip. A win on Monday, he stressed, would do wonders for the Magic’s psyche now.
``We’ve got to get these two,’’ Gordon said, including the road finale in Utah on Wednesday. ``Going back (to his) home, we’ve got to get these. I’ll be back (to near his childhood home), so we really need these games.’’
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