NEW YORK – The Orlando Magic came into Tuesday night needing only to beat the rebuilding, cellar-dwelling New York Knicks to move into a tie for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Instead, a Magic squad that has been among the hottest teams in the NBA over the past three weeks suffered what will go down as one of the worst defeats of the season. Even worse, it was the kind of costly loss that could hurt Orlando six weeks from now if it fails to reach the postseason because of frustration-filled games such as this one.
Orlando led by 16 in the early going, was up 12 early in the fourth quarter and held the lead for the first 45 minutes of the game before inexplicably going cold late in a bizarre 108-103 loss to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
``It’s a terrible loss. Just terrible – no other way to say it,’’ muttered Magic guard Evan Fournier, who had 15 points, but missed all seven of his 3-point shots – three of them coming in an ugly fourth quarter.
Orlando (28-34) came into the night having won six of seven and eight of 10, putting itself in a position to pull even with the Charlotte Hornets for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference standings. However, the Magic missed out on that golden opportunity by falling apart late in the game and falling to the Knicks (13-48).
Orlando’s bench got outscored 75-7 by New York’s reserves. Terrence Ross, who was coming off a 28-point effort on Sunday in Toronto, missed nine of his 10 shots and finished with just three points. In his seven-year career, Ross has had consecutive 20-point games just three times – two of them coming this season with the Magic. He couldn’t make a fourth on Tuesday and the Magic paid dearly, losing a winnable game that it had control of for 45 minutes.
``We’re a majority of the way through the season, so we should know (what it takes to win games) already; it’s not really time for learning,’’ said shooting guard Terrence Ross, whose struggles all night led to a gigantic disparity in bench play among the two teams. ``This time of the season it should just be about executing and doing what it takes to help us win.’’
The Magic led 40-24 early in the second quarter and had edges at halftime and after three periods despite getting little from its bench. Orlando opened the fourth period up 12 and came into Tuesday 22-7 when leading after three periods, but that mattered little down the stretch when Orlando missed shot after shot.
Up 100-96 with 4:54 to play, the Magic missed nine straight shots, allowing New York to string together a 10-0 run that decided the game. The Magic got within 106-103 on a Ross 3-pointer – his only made field goal of the game – but they oddly chose to foul five seconds later rather than playing out a possession that could have yielded them the ball and a chance to tie with some five seconds to play.
``They shot 32 free throws, they hurt us on the offensive glass and the ball is going to the basket (for the Knicks) all night,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``We have a way to play and I told the guys, `you’ve got to stay with it.’ There are going to be nights when the smart thing to do is going at matchups versus playing the way you want to. That’s what mature players do and that’s what mature teams do. We’re not always willing to do that.’’
All-Star center Nikola Vucevic had 26 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, while Aaron Gordon chipped in 26 points and six rebounds. Jonathan Isaac, a Bronx native who was playing at Madison Square Garden for the first time in his 1 ½-season NBA career, added 16 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots. Isaac knows the Magic squandered a huge opportunity on Tuesday night.
``It’s pretty disappointing, but obviously we’re still in it and we have a chance, a great chance’’ Isaac said. ``But if we want to (make the playoffs) these are the types of games that we’ve got to do it in. It’s just tough because we played great for stretches and then didn’t play well. They stayed with it. We got up double digits four or five times and we just weren’t able to hang on.’’
Whereas all five Magic starters scored in double digits, not one New York starter reached double figures. Instead, the Knicks hit the Magic with four reserves that contributed in a big way. Emmanuel Mudiay led the Knicks with 19 points, while 10-day contract-signee Henry Ellenson chipped in 18 points and three 3-pointers. Rookie center Mitchell Robinson, who registered nine blocks against the Magic early in the season, totaled 17 points, 14 rebounds and six blocked shots. He had eight of New York’s 14 offensive rebounds.
``Like I tell these guys, every game is going to be tough and every game is going to have new problems, but we’ve got to find a way to get past it; but in this game we got away from what was working for us,’’ Ross said. ``I didn’t help at all. I don’t know, man. This is just one of those nights. We’re still in (the playoffs), but we’ve just got to move past this and get ready for Golden State (in the next game).’’
In the fourth quarter, Orlando was outscored 30-13 after making just five of 25 shots and one of eight 3-point tries. Conversely, the Knicks shot 62.5 percent over the final 12 minutes and all 30 of their points were scored by reserves.
Up five at the half, the Magic were shaky early in the third period and twice allowed the Knicks to climb to within two points. However, the Magic got going just in time and pushed the lead out to 90-78 by the end of the third quarter.
Orlando had the lead despite its bench getting badly outplayed. Through three periods, New York’s reserves held a 45-4 advantage on Orlando’s usually reliable bench corps.
Orlando came into the night 2-0 against New York, having hung a 26-point loss on the Knicks on Nov. 11 – the Magic’s biggest victory at Madison Square Garden in the 30-year franchise history of the franchise. It looked like Tuesday’s game might go the same direction early on, but New York rallied behind the grit of its bench players.
Orlando never trailed in the first half and led 61-56 at intermission, but that score had to be somewhat disappointing considering that the advantage was as much as 16 in the early going.
The Magic got outscored 36-27 in the second quarter largely because of the discrepancy of the play off the bench. New York’s bench outscored Orlando’s reserves 36-4 in the first half. Ross, Orlando’s top reserve all season, didn’t score in the first half after missing all four of his shots.
``We weren’t as focused and as sharp as in Toronto (in Sunday’s victory),’’ Fournier fumed. ``So, I guess we got what we deserved.’’
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