SALT LAKE CITY – So breathtakingly potent and efficient at times and confoundingly discombobulated at others, the hot-and-cold Orlando Magic suffered the worst kind of loss on Wednesday night.
Sadly, it is a gut-wrenching pain that they are already familiar feeling considering their recent history of playing well early in games and faltering late.
Orlando played as well offensively as it has in weeks over the first 24 minutes of Wednesday’s game, building leads of 21 and 19 points, only to see Utah wipe out those deficits with a game-turning 25-3 run over the final 8 minutes of the third quarter. That about-face was so jarring it rattled the confidence of a starting five that played so well early on. Ultimately, the Magic had to stomach a completely dispiriting 106-93 loss to the Jazz that felt very much like a couple of their gut-punch defeats from earlier in a wayward road trip.
``I don’t think there’s a worse loss than being up and allowing a team to flip the score on you,’’ said Magic second-year forward Jonathan Isaac, who drilled the first shot of the game and scored nine points – all of them coming in the first half.
Orlando (17-24) lost for a fourth straight time, and this one was shocking similar to many of the others before it. The Magic led by 19 points in Minnesota on Friday only to lose and they raced out to an early 15-point edge on Sunday in Los Angeles against the Clippers, only to fall then, too.
This time around, the Magic led 28-7 in the first eight minutes, were up 17 points at intermission and held a seemingly safe 72-53 advantage with 8:53 left in the third quarter. However, Orlando missed its next seven shots and 11 of 12 while also turning the ball over five times in the final eight-plus minutes in the third period to give up the lead.
In the fourth, the Magic completely lost their momentum and fell once again in Utah to the Jazz (21-21) and star guard Donovan Mitchell (33 points and four 3-pointers). After shooting 52.4 percent in the first half and scoring 63 points, Orlando made just 11 of 41 shots in the second half (26.8 percent) and mustered only 30 points. That included, of course, a 12-point third period that was downright painful to watch for all involved in Magic pinstripes.
For the game, they finished 33 of 83 (39.8 percent) from the floor and 13 of 33 from 3-point range. Those were downright shocking numbers considering that Orlando opened the game by making 10 of 15 shots and five of seven threes.
``This is the third game on this trip that we had a big lead and we let them gain confidence and get more physical, and in just five minutes, they come back into the game,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who struggled through one of his worst nights as a pro by missing all eight of his shots and finishing with just one point. ``The other team gains confidence and we start doing the opposite of what we were doing early.’’
D.J. Augustin scored 23 points and hit the 3-pointer that put Orlando up 19 early in third period. Nikola Vucevic chipped in 20 points and eight rebounds, but he had just six points and four boards after halftime. Aaron Gordon chipped in 18 points and 10 rebounds, while Terrence Ross added 13 points and three 3-pointers off the bench.
However, it was hardly enough as the Magic’s bench once again played a major role in the downfall of the team. Reserves were on the floor most of the third period when Orlando squandered the lead – a familiar problem of late. Other than Ross, reserves Wes Iwundu (scoreless in 16 minutes), Isaiah Briscoe (two points, four rebounds and three assists in 18 minutes) and Khem Birch (seven points, four rebounds and two blocks in 17 minutes) had trouble keeping pace.
``We scored 30 points (in the second half), so it’s much more the offense (that is problematic),’’ said Magic coach Steve Clifford, who tried playing Briscoe at backup point guard instead of Jonathon Simmons or Jerian Grant in hopes of breathing life into the second unit. ``In the first half, we made (uncontested shots) and in the second half, we didn’t.’’
The defeat wrapped up a disappointing 1-5 road trip for the Magic as they hit the official midpoint of the season. Their recent woes have knocked them out of the playoff chase, but Fournier, for one, feels the Magic can make up ground over the next 41 games.
``Ending the trip like this it’s really hard, but we’re still in the race and still in the playoff (chase),’’ said Fournier, a veteran of five Magic seasons. ``A lot of stuff can still happen. It’s going to feel good to be back in Orlando. I mean, the biggest thing, we just have to figure out when we have a lead, we have to keep it.’’
Joe Ingles ignited Utah’s offense in the second half with his play in pick-and-roll sets and finished with 16 points, seven assists and four 3-pointers. Rudy Gobert added 12 points and 14 rebounds as the Jazz – which shot 48.8 percent with 12 threes – won despite missing starting point guard Ricky Rubio (hamstring strain) and three key reserves.
Orlando inexplicably fell into a shooting slump midway through last Friday’s loss in Minnesota and saw it last through losses against the Clippers and Kings.
After shooting 76.4 percent through the first 18 minutes of the loss in Minnesota, Orlando made just 16 of 54 shots (29.6 percent) the rest of the way. Then, Orlando struggled mightily from the floor against the Clippers (37.1 percent shooting and 29 percent from 3-point range) and Kings (36.8 percent shooting and 35.1 percent from 3-point range).
Those shooting woes seem to disappear with Wednesday’s fast start, but they returned in a dreadful second half.
``They were a little more physical with us and we’ve got to be grittier,’’ Gordon said. ``We weren’t gritty enough. When they’re scoring, we can’t let that affect our offense. We’ve got to cut the water off and continue to play our game regardless of what the score is.’’
Orlando was without rookie center Mo Bamba, who was held out of action on Wednesday because of a sore left foot. Bamba, the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, said his foot grew increasingly more sore following Monday’s loss in Sacramento. He tried going through Wednesday morning’s workout and his usual pregame shooting routine, but when the pain persisted, the Magic’s medical staff made the decision to keep the 7-footer out of action. The injury isn’t thought to be serious and Clifford said the Magic having two days coming up without games played in the role to rest Bamba.
Wednesday’s game was mercifully the final leg of a six-game, 11-day trip in which the Magic played in all four continental U.S. time zones – a first in the 30-year history of the franchise. Orlando lost in Charlotte in the first game, but it rebounded to rout Chicago two days later. What followed was four straight losses against Minnesota, the Clippers, Sacramento and Utah.
The Magic were scheduled to leave right after Wednesday’s game and arrive back in Central Florida in the early-morning hours of Thursday. The Magic will be back on the practice court in Friday before hosting Boston (Saturday) and Houston (Sunday) in a difficult home/home back-to-back set of games.
Wednesday’s game was also a rematch between the two teams that played a month earlier in Mexico City. Orlando won that game thanks to a 41-30 edge in the fourth quarter.
Up 17 after a nearly flawless first half, Orlando held firm in the early stages of the third period and actually extended its lead out to 72-53 following an Augustin. However, the bottom soon fell out for the Magic after they broke the starting lineup and began shuffling reserves in and out of the game. Orlando proceeded to miss its next seven shots, allowing Utah to rip off a 14-0 run. Over the final8:43 of the third period, Utah outscored the Magic 25-3 to grab a head-scratching 78-75 lead as the teams headed into the fourth period.
``Tonight, we started hot and really making shots. Not necessarily wide-open shots, but the ball was moving, and we were making shots for real,’’ Fournier said of his teammates’ shooting. ``But when you start losing a little bit of confidence, you don’t even think about taking those shots. When the defense makes us work more and we’re not playing with confidence, we need to work and be more physical.’’
The Magic’s only points after going ahead by 19 in the third period came on a desperation 3-point heave from Augustin, who was falling out of bounds and banked in the prayer as the shot clock expired. While the Jazz were making nine of 15 shots and all four of their free throws over the final eight-plus minutes of the third, Orlando missed 11 of 12 tries and kicked the ball away five times.
Mired in an unsightly three-game shooting slump, the Magic came roaring out of the gates on the offensive end in the early going and held a commanding 63-46 lead at intermission. Orlando drilled 10 of its first 15 shots and five of its first seven 3-pointers to grab a somewhat shocking 28-7 lead on the Jazz.
In what proved to be a promising sign for the Magic, Isaac drilled a corner 3-pointer on the first possession of the game. Isaac came into the night having missed his previous seven 3-point shots in the two games prior and he was just three of 16 over the five games leading up to Wednesday.
In that highly efficient first half, the Magic shot 52.4 percent and drilled nine of 14 3-point shots. Six different Magic players had assists in the opening half, while five players drilled 3-pointers.
However, it wouldn’t last. Once again, the Magic suffered another crushing collapse and they were left to find answers for what ails them.
``It shows that we’re capable, but we’ve got a long way to go,’’ Gordon said. ``We’ve just got to close games out and definitely come out faster in that third quarter.’’
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