Postgame Report: Magic 111, Mavs 106

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Smack-dab in the middle of a playoff race for the first time since 2012, the Orlando Magic showed just how far they have come this season by picking apart something of an unsightly victory on Friday night.

An enigma of late by beating three of the NBA’s best teams and losing to three teams at the bottom of the standings, the Magic put an end to that trend by doing just enough to dispatch the rebuilding Dallas Mavericks 111-106 at the Amway Center.

Afterward, the victory – set up by shooting guard Terrence Ross’ 22 points and six 3-pointers – provided little solace for Orlando head coach Steve Clifford, who liked little to nothing about his team’s defensive effort and he left the postgame podium worried about his team’s lack of urgency at this critical juncture late in the season.

``(The Mavericks) got whatever they wanted the whole game, we were not interested in defense – especially when we got ahead – and it’s not how we have to play,’’ Clifford said. ``It was, to me, one of the more disappointing (games) in terms of approach and intensity. You know, we got outplayed, but we just made more shots than they did. If (the Mavericks) shoot the ball the way they normally do, we would have lost tonight.’’

Playing before an Amway Center crowd of 19,196 – the ninth-largest crowd in the 30-year history of the Magic – Orlando (31-36) made eight of its first 12 3-point shots and snapped a two-game losing streak. The victory allowed the Magic to remain in a tie for ninth place with the Charlotte Hornets (30-35) and a game back of the Miami Heat (31-34) for the No. 8 seed. No. 6 Detroit (33-31), Orlando, Charlotte and Miami all won on Friday, setting up a tight race that could go down to the final night of the regular season. No. 7 Brooklyn (34-33) was off on Friday, but it has the most difficult remaining schedule of the five teams vying for three playoff spots.

Despite having two days of rest and a full practice for the first time in two weeks, the Magic weren’t sharp defensively and far from being the team that ranked second in the NBA in defensive rating from Jan. 1 to the break for the NBA All-Star Game. They led by 15 at the half and by as much as 19 at the end of the third period, but they allowed Dallas (27-38) to climb within six points just after halftime and get as close as five with 46 seconds to play.

``We just played sloppy and (Clifford) expects more from us and we expect more from ourselves,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who had 18 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots and topped the 4,000-point plateau for his career. ``That pretty much was what the message was. Defensively, offensively, taking care of the ball, we just weren’t locked into the game plan. But I’m happy that we came out with the win.’’

Orlando was able to stay out front most of the night thanks to a balanced offense and strong games from Nikola Vucevic (20 points, 13 rebounds and six assists), Jonathan Isaac (14 points and nine rebounds), Ross (eight-of-16 shooting and six-of-11 from 3-point range) and Gordon (seven-of-15 shooting). Orlando shot 48.3 percent from the floor and made 14 of 29 3-point shots. D.J. Augustin scored 10 of his 12 points in the third quarter to snap the Magic out of a malaise just after halftime, while guard Evan Fournier chipped in 10 points and four assists.

``What we do when we’re really good is we play good defense, and sometimes we get away from that,’’ Fournier said. ``It’s not easy to do and it’s a commitment (playing well defensively), but that’s what it’s going to take for us to take that next step.’’

Dallas lost its fourth straight game and the ninth in the past 10 games. Luka Doncic, the heavy favorite to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award, shook off a slow start and scored 24 points to keep the Mavericks close. Fellow rookie Jalen Brunson hurt the Magic with his penetration and scored 18 points.

Legendary Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki, the league’s second-oldest player at 40 years old, received a standing ovation upon checking into the game with 2:09 left in the first period. Friday’s game could very well have been Nowitzki’s final one in Orlando in what has been a Hall of Fame career covering 21 seasons with the Mavericks as he is considering retirement. Nowitzki, who tied a season-high with 15 points on Friday, came into the night have averaged 21.1 points and 7.1 rebounds while shooting 48.2 percent from the floor and 42.5 percent from 3-point range in 34 games against the Magic.

``Another great, emotional reception that I will always enjoy now obviously coming off the bench on the dead ball,’’ said Nowitzki of the cheering fans in Orlando. ``Obviously, the fans there have a chance there (during the stoppage in the action) to get up. That (reception) was awesome. I am humbled with all of these receptions on the road. I will never take it for granted.’’

Friday’s game was the Magic’s first of seven straight against foes with losing records – five of which will be played at the Amway Center. Orlando next plays Memphis (Sunday), Washington (Wednesday), Cleveland (Thursday), Atlanta (March 17), New Orleans (March 20) and Memphis again (March 22).

The Magic are hopeful that they will be able to use that stretch to make a move up the standings. Orlando is looking to snap a six-year drought of missing the playoffs – the longest such streak in franchise history. But Vucevic said the squad will have to play with more urgency on the defensive end going forward.

``We did get the win, which is the most important, but we have to do better,’’ Vucevic said. ``We did enough to win, but we need to be better. These next 15 games we have to take our game to another level – defensively and offensively. We know that and we know Coach (Clifford) isn’t just going to tell us things to make us feel better. We need him to be that way and he’s been that way all year and it’s helped us.’’

Orlando found out earlier on Friday that reserve point guard Isaiah Briscoe will likely miss an extended period of time with torn meniscus in his right knee. Briscoe, who has steadied the play of the Magic’s second unit since being moved into the regular rotation in mid-January, has yet to decide whether he will have surgery or try and repair his knee via physical therapy and strengthening drills.

Jerian Grant, who has been in an out of the rotation all season because of his uneven play, is the top reserve behind Augustin now with Briscoe out for the foreseeable future. He played well on Friday, contributing six points, four assists, two rebounds and two steals. The Magic were a plus-13 on the scoreboard in his nearly 20 minutes on the floor.

Said Clifford of Grant: ``He’s going to be important and, you know, we were a plus when he was on the floor. I thought the bench played better than the starters did.’’

That was largely because of the stellar shooting of Ross, Orlando’s best bench player all season. Ross missed Orlando’s loss in Philadelphia on Tuesday because of a sore left Achilles’ tendon, and he has battled through flu-like symptoms the previous two days. He showed no ill effects of those maladies on Friday by drilling five of his first seven shots from the 3-point arc.

``You just play through it,’’ Ross said. ``Once I got to play, the cold kind of goes away a little bit and my foot didn’t hurt too bad. So, it was good.’’

The Magic led by 15 at the half but allowed Dallas to claw within six (69-63) before getting their offense going again. Augustin scored 10 of Orlando’s first 12 points of the second half, allowing the Magic to push their lead back to 92-73 by the end of the third period.

Orlando was dialed in and efficient offensively in the first half in building a 62-47 lead on the Mavericks. The Magic torched Dallas from the outside, drilling seven of their first 12 3-point shots.

What looked to be a laugher got tight in the fourth quarter when the Mavericks repeatedly gashed Orlando’s defense. Dallas held a 33-19 edge in the final period, getting within five points of Orlando with 46.9 seconds remaining on a floater by Trey Burke.

Doncic had a woeful start, missing five of his first six shots and his one make hit off the back iron and bounced high into the air before falling through the net. Clifford was upset that Orlando fouled Doncic late in the first half to award him three free throws. And in the fourth quarter, Doncic drilled two 3-pointers and had an assist and a rebound, further infuriating Clifford. The NBA coach of 19 years said the Magic have to play with a greater sense of urgency if it wants to reach the postseason in mid-April.

``We had blown coverages and their pick-and-roll game they picked us apart. Like I said, we got our played, but they just didn’t shoot the ball nearly as well as we did,’’ Clifford said with conviction. ``Not today (with the sense of urgency), not at all. We have to have a defensive mentality and I told them what I saw was that when the ball started going through the basket, we stopped moving it the way we need to, and we thought we were going to win the game and we played no defense. That’s what I saw.’’

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