Postgame Report: Magic Fall to Clippers on Second Night of Back-to-Back in L.A.

by John Denton

LOS ANGELES – A night after the severely shorthanded and injury-ravaged Orlando Magic did the absolutely unthinkable and stunned the surging Los Angeles Lakers they reverted to a more predictable reality against superstar forward Kawhi Leonard and the rested Los Angeles Clippers.

The Magic knew that, sooner or later, playing with just one healthy point guard would catch up to them and did it ever on Thursday at Staples Center. Orlando struggled mightily during the stretches that Markelle Fultz was out of the game, and they weren’t much better with him in the game in a predictably ugly 122-95 loss to the Clippers.

Clearly, the Magic were a physically tired and mentally spent team while facing the second L.A. powerhouse in 48 hours. And it showed in their play as they fell behind by 10 in the early going and by as much as 23 just before halftime. Orlando rallied for a few spurts of the second half, but never got closer than 14 points over the final 24 minutes of the night.

``You have to have the necessary intensity, purpose and attitude of play every night in this league, especially against a team as good as (the Clippers),’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``With our team, our attitude and our approach have been real strengths all year, but (on Thursday) it was not. I just told our them, `With our roster, we won’t beat anybody playing at that intensity level.’ And it doesn’t matter why (the team was flat). Again, it’s been a strength all year and I don’t think it will happen the rest of the way. But we’ve just got to regroup and play better.’’

A night earlier, Orlando shocked the basketball world and Lakers fans throughout Southern California by beating L.A. 119-118 in stirring fashion. In that game, Marklle Fultz compiled the second triple-double of his career, Nikola Vucevic drilled a big 3-pointer late in the night, Aaron Gordon played his best all-around game of the season and several less heralded fill-ins played starring roles.

As if playing the Clippers (29-13) wasn’t difficult enough already, the Magic had to do it less than 24 hours after facing the Lakers. This season, there have been six teams that have played the Clippers and Lakers in L.A. on back-to-back nights and they have gone just 2-10 in those games with eight of those losses being by double figures. Toronto and Orlando are the only teams to notch victories in that scenario.

``Back-to-backs are part of the NBA so that’s not an excuse, but I thought our mentality and focus coming into the game wasn’t there to start the game off, and it hurt us,’’ said Fultz, who mustered just 11 points, five assists and four rebounds largely because of his five-of-17 shooting on Thursday. ``They got out to the lead and the energy wasn’t there and you could just see it. The energy wasn’t right. It’s something we’ve definitely got to learn from. It’s not something we’re known of doing, but in times like that we’ve got to find a way to get a spark and get some energy.’’

Orlando (20-22) missed out on a chance to get to the .500 mark for the first time since Dec. 6 when it was 11-11. The Magic saw their modest two-game winning streak come to an end as they dropped to 7-14 on the road and 4-17 against foes with a losing record.

Just as Kawhi Leonard did last spring when he torched the Magic for 27.8 points per night over the five-game, first-round playoff series, the superstar forward did as he wanted most of Thursday. He poured in 32 points in just 30 minutes and coolly drilled 12 of 20 shots, four of seven 3-pointers and all four of his free throws and wasn’t needed down the stretch.

``Back-to-backs are probably the hardest thing you can do in this league with the Lakers and then the Clippers,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who played with a bruised quad and finished with 15 points on six-of-15 shooting. ``(The Clippers) played well, they played with intensity and they scouted us well. They did a great job and I thought our intensity and focus weren’t in the right place tonight. You can’t win like that.’’

Vucevic scored in 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds by making eight of 13 shots and three of four 3-point shots. Gordon played well a second straight night and scored 20 points with four 3-pointers. Terrence Ross chipped in 16 points and four 3-pointers, while a clearly hobbled Evan Fournier (right quad contusion) got to just 15 points after missing nine of 15 shot attempts.

Orlando did get back Fournier – its leading scorer – after a one-game absence with a right thigh bruise, but it was again without four other top-line players in Jonathan Isaac (left knee sprain), Al-Farouq Aminu (right knee surgery), D.J. Augustin (left knee swelling and soreness) and Michael Carter-Williams (left shoulder sprain). That meant another night of the Magic having to rely on 10-day contract signee Gary Clark, G League call-up B.J. Johnson and a host of fill ins at the point guard position behind Fultz.

A night after scoring 10 points, Clark failed to score on Thursday, while Johnson missed all three of his shots in seven minutes. Wes Iwundu, who had a career-best 19 points a night earlier, compiled just eight on Thursday.

The Magic announced prior to the game that an MRI revealed bone irritation in the left knee of Augustin, and he is expected to miss three-to-four weeks of action. Playing with just one healthy point guard blew up in Orlando’s faces on Thursday. The Magic were outscored by eight points with Fultz on the floor for nearly 30 minutes, meaning they were a minus-19 in the other 18 minutes without a point guard on the floor.

``Terribly,’’ Clifford said of his team’s organization without a true point guard on the floor. ``That was the biggest problem. It didn’t function well (on Wednesday versus the Lakers) either without a point guard in. And (Thursday) was worse. It’s hard to play without a point guard.’’

A night after Orlando fortunately missing superstar forward Anthony Davis because of a bruised gluteus maximus, Clippers’ star Paul George missed Thursday’s game because of a sore hamstring.

Montrezl Harrell scored 21 points off the bench for the Clippers, who shot 49.5 percent from the floor. Orlando connected on just 39.1 percent of its shots.

Orlando came into Thursday trying to sweep the two games in Los Angeles in the same season for just the fifth time in its 31-year history. Previously, the Magic swept the Lakers and Clippers in L.A. during the 2012-13, 2008-09, 2007-08 and 1995-96 seasons.

If the Magic are ever going pull off that sweep again, they must find a way to defeat the Clippers at some point in the near future. They came into Thursday having dropped 11 straight games against them, including a six-game skid in L.A. that dates back to Jan. 12, 2013.

``You play a lot of elite teams, and there aren’t a lot of teams that aren’t good, so if you want to be really good you’ve got to be able to find your intensity every night,’’ Clifford surmised. ``That’s the way it works.’’

After facing the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers on consecutive nights, the Magic will get a much-needed day off on Friday. The team was scheduled to fly after Thursday’s game from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where they will face the injury-ravaged Golden State Warriors on Saturday afternoon. Tipoff from the new Chase Center in downtown San Francisco will be at 8:30 PM ET.

Orlando rallied in the fourth quarter last February to beat Golden State and end an 11-game losing streak to the Warriors. The Magic certainly weren’t disappointed to see Oakland’s Oracle Arena go by the wayside as they lost on their final six trips there. Orlando hasn’t won in the Bay Arena since December of 2012. This season, Golden State has fallen on hard times with star guards Steph Curry (thumb surgery) and Klay Thompson (knee surgery) out most of the season. The Warriors went into Thursday tied with Atlanta with the fewest number of wins (nine) in the NBA.

Down 19 after a forgettable first half, the Magic refused to roll over and actually cut into the deficit in the third period. Fultz repeatedly got loose in the third period (seven points and two assists), allowing the Magic to outscore L.A. 28-24 in the third. Still, the Magic headed into the fourth trailing 91-76.

Whereas the Magic are 17-1 this season when leading or tied after three periods, they are just 3-21 now when trailing after three quarters.

Orlando trailed 67-48 at the half, largely because it had little to no answers in slowing down Leonard and the deep and loaded Clippers. L.A. made its first five shots, 11 of 14 and 13 of 21 by the end of the first period. By halftime, the Clippers hit the locker room at 55.3 percent from the floor with nine 3-pointers in 17 tries.

Just as he did last spring in the first round of the playoffs while playing for the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors, Leonard tormented the Magic with shots from practically every spot on the floor. He made his first four shots of the game, and by the midpoint of the second period he had already made seven of eight shots and all three of his 3-point shots. He had 22 points by halftime and barely looked as if he had broken a sweat with his coolly efficient play.

Both Fultz (two of nine, four points) and Fournier (three of 10 shooting, eight points) both struggled badly in the early going of the game. But things got much worse when Fultz was on the bench and the Magic tried using Ross, Gordon and Wes Iwundu as their fill-in point guards. Orlando was a minus-16 in the nine-plus minutes that Fultz was on the bench in the opening half.

``I felt OK, but I’ve been better,’’ Fournier said of the soreness he felt throughout the game. ``But it’s a part of it and I’m fine.’’

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.

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