ORLANDO – The Orlando Magic are home for the holidays and, for whatever reason, that continues to be a very bad thing for the struggling squad.
A tough, resilient team on the road all season, the Magic have inexplicably had their biggest struggles and worst performances all season at the Amway Center.
Stuck in their worst offensive rut of the season and unable to dig out of it with their usually reliable defense, the Magic returned to the Amway Center on Sunday in hopes of ending a two-game losing streak and beating the rival Miami Heat for a third time this season. Instead, the Amway Center was once again a house of horrors for the skidding Magic.
Miami guard Tyler Johnson, who started only after Rodney McGruder was a late scratch, scored 20 of his 25 points in the third quarter and Orlando sputtered offensively much of the night as the Heat beat the Magic 115-91.
``So obviously, we’ve lost our way here a little bit – actually a lot – which happens in during an NBA season and (the Heat) are rolling,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``We have two days here to regroup and get better. I just told (the team), it’s never as bad as it seems after you’ve played two or three games like this. And, then when you’re winning, it’s never as good. … The important thing is that we’ve got to get back to making progress. We’re not nearly as organized as we were 10 days ago or two weeks ago and that starts with the right intensity and the right concentration.
``When we get back to that, we’ll win,’’ the coach continued. ``In this league, there are no easy games and you’re going to win the games that you deserve to win.’’
A sellout crowd of 18,846 looked on mostly in silence as the Magic (14-18) shot just 41.4 percent from the floor, made only 10 of 28 3-pointers, missed nine free throws and turned the ball over 19 times. That poor shooting dropped the Magic to 8-10 as the home team and just 6-10 in games played at the Amway Center.
``It’s not just offensively, in my opinion; it’s the way we play overall,’’ said Magic shooting guard Evan Fournier, who had 17 points, six rebounds, four assists and three 3-pointers. ``We have to get our (stuff) together. We knew at some point that we were going to hit a wall because it happens to every team ever year. It’s really how you respond and fight. The most important thing right now is to stay together and not start pointing fingers and making excuses. We have to keep believing in what we’re doing every day.’’
Orlando led 2-0 and 6-5 and never led again, falling behind by as much as 13 in the first quarter and by as much as 26 points through three periods. By contrast, surging Miami – which entered last in the league in field goal shooting – made 50.6 percent of its shots from the floor and drilled 16 of 31 3-pointers.
The Magic played with plenty of pluck and charged back to within seven late in the second quarter and within eight points midway through the fourth quarter. However, the Heat (16-16) had offensive answers each time and pushed their lead out to comfortable margins.
Despite being without standout point guard Goran Dragic, Miami has won five straight games. Also, Sunday’s game was 500th victory of Erik Spoelstra’s head coaching career.
``They’re a good team and they’re extremely well-coached. This team has had our number all year long,’’ Spoelstra said of a Magic team that won the first two meetings. ``They made their run, we had to respond, and we did it the right way. And to be honest, the ball also has to go in. The ball went in a little more tonight than it has in the other (games).’’
Orlando came into Sunday in its worst offensive funk of the season, shooting an NBA-worst 39.1 percent over the previous six games. Things didn’t get much better in this one as standouts Nikola Vucevic (eight points on three-of-12 shooting) and Aaron Gordon (14 points on four-of-seven shooting) continued to struggle.
``I think we just have to play with more energy, play smarter and make better decisions and play more for each other,’’ said Vucevic, who struggled for a second consecutive game after missing a home defeat last week due to the birth of his first child. ``We’re not doing that like we did when we were good earlier in the season. We just have to try to look more for each other, either by screening, moving the ball or getting more action. We’re playing, right now, in a way that’s easy to defend.’’
Jonathon Simmons, who was back after missing one game with a sprained ankle, scored 11 points off the Magic bench. Jonathan Isaac had the Magic’s best hustle play of the night and finished with eight points and seven rebounds. Starting point guard D.J. Augustin had just seven points and two assists in 22 minutes.
Justise Winslow scored 22 points, while Josh Richardson chipped in 15 points and 10 rebounds. Hassan Whiteside added 14 points, while retiring Miami legend Dwyane Wade scored 10 points in 24 minutes.
Johnson used the 20-point third quarter to set the stage for another big night. If that sounds familiar, Johnson did nearly the same thing on Dec. 30, 2017 when he scored 22 third-quarter points against the Magic in Orlando. He clearly likes playing the Magic as he scored a career-best 32 points against Orlando in Miami two years ago.
Orlando trailed 90-71 through three periods largely because of the dynamic exploits of Johnson once again. The guard, who only started because of a stomach ailment to McGruder, scored 20 third-quarter points by making seven-of-nine shots. Time and again, he rubbed off screens and made the Magic pay with jump shots when big men backed off defensively. A year ago, he did the same thing, scoring 22 third-quarter points to set up a Heat win.
Johnson outscored the turnover-prone Magic much of the third period before a late hot stretch. Orlando turned the ball over four times in the third period, pushing their total to 16 through 36 minutes.
Sunday’s game featured a bit more intrigue than the usual Sunshine State rivalry because of the potential playoff implications. Orlando won the first two meetings of the season – 104-101 in the opener and 105-90 on Dec. 4 – and a third victory would have given it the season series and the tiebreaker should the two teams finish tied at the end of the season.
Winners of two games last week in Mexico City, Orlando has fallen flat since then and came into the game Sunday riding a two-game losing streak. Orlando was whipped by 39 points at home by San Antonio on Wednesday and mostly struggled in a loss in Chicago on Friday night.
``It can turn around really quick, but we’ve just got to do it,’’ Vucevic said. ``It wasn’t too long ago that we had two really good wins in Mexico. We just have to find our rhythm back and our groove back on both ends of the floor. And we have to play with more energy. We just look a little flat out there – not as far as not playing hard, but we just need that positive energy that gets you going and makes you play better. We just have to find it.’’
The Magic are scheduled to practice on Monday, but the team will take Christmas Day off completely. Orlando will be back inaction on Wednesday when it hosts struggling Phoenix. The Suns, which lost to Orlando three weeks ago, fell in Washington in triple-overtime on Saturday.
``Maybe it’s not a bad time for (Christmas). We’ll practice (on Monday), but then we’ll have a day-and-a-half off to spend with our families and maybe taking some time off will help us re-group,’’ Vucevic added.
With Wade set to retire at season’s end, Sunday’s showdown against the Magic was the final regular-season game of his likely Hall of Fame career in Orlando. It was the 25thtime that he’s played a regular-season game in Orlando.
In 16 NBA seasons – most of them with the Heat – Wade has his share of big games against the Magic – but not as many as one might expect despite often playing Orlando four times a season. In his 51 games against the Magic, Wade has scored 30 or more 11 times. That actually is tied for fourth for the most 30-point games against any opponent. Coming into Sunday, Wade had averaged 23.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists against the Magic. He has averaged more points a game against eight other NBA teams.
Wade was appreciative that the Magic played a video tribute to him during a time out in the second quarter. Also, he enjoyed the cheers of fans before, during and after Sunday’s game.
``It started (Saturday) night when we came to Orlando,’’ Wade said. ``They had a large crowd outside (the team hotel on Saturday) and (Sunday). But I want to thank the Magic organization for the video. It is always unexpected. I appreciate each (Magic) player and the words that they said. You just play this game and you give it your all and you don’t really think about the impact you are making on the future players. So, it’s cool to hear the things some of the players have said.’’
The first half was an epic struggle offensively for the Magic and they trailed the Heat 53-44 at intermission. Orlando trailed by as much as 19 points before using a 14-2 burst – capped by a hustling play from Isaac – to get back into the game.
The Magic made just seven of their first 19 shots and remarkably turned the ball over eight times in the first 12 minutes. And when the offensive woes continued, the Magic found themselves trailing 41-22 midway through the second quarter.
Orlando flipped the game around with a stirring run late in the second-quarter. Following 3-pointers by Terrence Ross and Jerian Grant, a setback jumper by Fournier and a driving layup by Vucevic, Isaac made the play of the first half. First, he dove on the floor for a loose ball to secure a possession for the game. Next, he got up off the floor, soared high for a rebound and dunked with authority to draw the Magic within 43-36 of the Heat.
Vucevic and Fournier are the two longest-tenured players on the Magic roster and they have seen promising starts to the season unravel several times before. Not only are they highly hopeful that doesn’t happen again, but they have a strong belief that the squad can eventually get back to the opportunistic offense and smothering defense that made the Magic a success over much of the first 2 ½ months of the season.
``How is it going to be different? I don’t know, but I just believe in us more than last year,’’ said Fournier, a Magic standout for five seasons. ``We know that we can play well and it’s not like we won games because we made 25 threes a night. It’s because of the execution, we play hard and we’re focused – and that’s something that we can do. You’re not going to make shots every night, but you can control the concentration, the energy and knowing the game plan. That stuff has to be better, period.’’
Added Vucevic, who is in his seventh season in Orlando: ``We have more experience, we know what works for us and we’ve established a (style) that works for us, but we just haven’t been consistent with it. If we get back to it, we can turn things around quickly. We just have to do it. We talk about it a lot, but we’ve got to go out there and do it. There’s only so much to be said.’’
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.