SACRAMENTO – Far more familiar with Orlando Magic midseason meltdowns than he’d like to be, guard Evan Fournier sounded like a worried weatherman while describing his team’s perilous plight.
``We’re right in the middle of a storm and it’s kind of crazy right now,’’ Fournier said.
The problem with Fournier’s assessment, however, was that he uttered it on Sunday afternoon – some 28 hours prior to Orlando playing in Sacramento on Monday night against the much-improved Kings.
The thunderheads, threatening clouds and swirling winds grew even more ominous for the Magic on Monday night when their defensive struggles matched their woeful shooting and Sacramento’s athletic and energetic roster overwhelmed them in a 111-95 loss at Golden 1 Center.
Orlando (17-23) lost for a third straight time and a fourth time in five games on the franchise’s longest road trip of the season. The Magic’s team plane landed in Sacramento on Sunday night in near-tornadic conditions with 40-mile-per-hour winds and horizontal rains. As it turned out, that was just a preview of the storm that would hit them on Monday by the Kings (20-20). Afterward, Fournier – a veteran of four non-playoff seasons in Orlando previously – sounded another alarm of concern.
``Things aren’t going to get any easier, so we either fight through it or we let this thing hit us even harder and our season will be over,’’ said Fournier, imploring his teammates to show more grit in the face of adversity. ``We have two options right now.’’
The Magic stayed close for the first 10 minutes on Monday before their already sputtering offense hit another rough patch, allowing Sacramento to break the game open. The Kings used a 20-3 run over a six-minute stretch spanning the first and second quarters to grab control and never look back. The Kings shot 46.4 percent from the floor and scored 27 points off 16 Orlando turnovers to break a four-game losing streak.
After another disheartening loss, center Nikola Vucevic – Orlando’s longest-tenured player – spoke of both the disappointment of his team’s poor stretch and the need to stay positive.
``We talked about these things (defending the paint and taking care of the ball) and we didn’t defend the way that we needed to. We talked about turnovers and we turned the ball over and they got anything that they wanted in the paint,’’ said a frustrated Vucevic, who had 18 points, 13 rebounds and three assists. ``We just weren’t playing the way we talked about.
``That’s frustrating when we’re in the position that we’re in – we had lost two in a row, and now a third one and we’re five games under .500,’’ Vucevic added. ``We should be better and do better. It’s a tough situation for us right now and all of us are disappointed with how we’re playing, but we have to keep working. Things can turn around quickly in this league. Three games ago, everything was great after we beat Toronto and Detroit and now it doesn’t feel as good. But that’s the way it is in this league. You have to be mentally strong and find it within yourself to get out of this hole.’’
Orlando shot just 36.8 percent from the floor and made only 13 of 37 3-point shots. Even more troubling, the Magic were sloppy with the ball and their miscues jump-started speedy Kings’ point guard De’Aaron Fox (20 points and four dunks). Sacramento held a 24-12 edge in fast-break points for the game.
Orlando coach Steve Clifford warned his team of that very threat prior to tipoff. Still, Orlando turned the ball over six times in the first quarter, four times in the second and another four times in the 12 minutes just after halftime. Clifford said he might have to shuffle the Magic’s rotations once again in an attempt to get more shooting on the floor – one possible remedy to the turnover woes.
``We turned the ball over a lot and we just struggled to score,’’ Clifford said. ``I just have to find a way where we have enough shooting on the floor to create spacing. It’s a problem and there’s just not a lot of room out there with some of the lineups out there for anybody to have a place to go. That just makes it hard.’’
Fournier chipped in 15 points and four 3-pointers, but he and Vucevic didn’t have nearly enough help. Aaron Gordon, who was playing close to his San Jose home for a seventh time in his career, scored 10 points on three-of-13 shooting.
``I’ve got to play better, be more efficient and a lot of it just comes down to me playing better,’’ said Gordon, who had nearly two dozen friends and family in attendance. ``I’ve got to make shots and create shots. I’ve just got to be better.’’
Starters Jonathan Isaac (two points) and D.J. Augustin (six points) both missed five of their six field goal attempts. Terrence Ross finished with a team-high 20 points, but he had just five in the first half when the outcome with still up in the air. Second-year forward Wes Iwundu scored 11, while reserve point guard Isaiah Briscoe had 10 points and two 3-pointers off the bench.
Clifford, who shuffled his substitution pattern with his reserves once again, said he will consider lineup changes going forward.
``It’s not just one guy; it’s how it all works together,’’ Clifford said. ``It’s not one guy or this or that but listen: When we go to the bench – and I’ve got to keep finding different ways and we’ve tried a lot of different combinations – but it’s an issue.
``We’ll see, but I mean everything (is under consideration) and we’ve got to keep looking for answers,’’ Clifford added, referring to rotational changes. ``One thing I know in this league is you can’t keep changing the lineup every three games and expect guys to play well. Obviously, this is difficult.’’
Playing as well as it has at any point in the past 12 years, Sacramento swept the season series from the Magic for a second straight year. The Kings won 107-99 in Orlando on Oct. 30 – a game that was decided when the Magic turned the ball over three times in a four-possession stretch after getting within two of Sacramento. On Monday, it was more of the same with Magic errors leading to easy, run-out baskets for the Kings.
``Good win for us,’’ Sacramento coach Dave Joerger said. ``We feel our guys are growing a little bit.’’
The Magic were playing some 28 hours after losing 106-96 to the Clippers in Los Angeles. Orlando played well enough to win defensively, holding the Clippers to 43 percent. However, the Magic offense struggled over the final 33 minutes and they shot just 37.1 percent for the game.
Prior to Monday’s game, Clifford stressed that the Magic will have to be a defensive-minded team going forward because their offense will invariably have plenty of poor-shooting nights.
``We’re not a great shooting team and (bad nights) are going to happen sometimes,’’ he said. ``By playing the lineups that we’re playing our defense is getting better and better. That’s how we’re going to win. You’ve got to look at your roster – we’re not going to be 115 (points) a night. It’s just not there.’’
The Magic’s longest road trip of the season – six games spread over 11 nights – mercifully wraps up on Wednesday when they play the Jazz in Utah. Orlando won the first meeting of the season against Utah, rolling to a 96-89 victory in Mexico City thanks to a stellar fourth quarter of basketball.
The Magic’s long, winding road trip started in Charlotte and then took them to Chicago and Minnesota before hitting Los Angeles and Sacramento. At long last, they will wrap up the trip in Utah 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 will play games in all four U.S. time zones.
Said Gordon, who is battling a nasty head cold that he attributed to all of the travel of the past nine nights: ``I’m not feeling great right now, but it’s not an excuse. For this team to be successful and for this organization to be successful I know that I have to play better.’’
With the Magic down 16 at the half, things only got worse in a third period that they were outscored 32-20. The Kings led by as much as 29 points in the quarter – their biggest advantage of the night.
Unlike the previous two games, when they built a 19-point lead against Minnesota and a 15-point lead against the Clippers, the Magic played mostly from behind in the first half and trailed 58-42 at intermission.
Orlando hung tough in the early going and actually led 24-23 when Iwundu converted a spin move in the paint. However, Orlando would miss its next nine field goal attempts – a drought the covered the final 2:28 of the first quarter and the first 4:28 of the second period. By the time the run was over, Sacramento used a 20-3 burst to break the game open.
``We have to be mentally tough and stay with it,’’ Fournier said.
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