By John Denton Feb. 14, 2018
ORLANDO – When the Orlando Magic return from the break for the NBA All-Star Game next week, head coach Frank Vogel says ``we’re going to be a different team,’’ what with the expected returns of Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon and eventually Jonathan Isaac and Terrence Ross.
Maybe, just maybe, that full-strength version of the Magic will be able to eventually figure out the vexing problem that is the Charlotte Hornets.
All-Star guard Kemba Walker, long a Magic killer with his quickness out of pick-and-roll plays and back-breaking shots, drilled a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:11 to play and Charlotte made all the key plays down the stretch for a 104-102 defeat of Orlando.
Orlando (18-39) has now lost 10 straight games against Charlotte (24-33) over the past 2 ½ seasons – many of them coming at the hands of Walker, who was held in check most of the night but finished with 20 points, six assists and four 3-pointers.
``It’s disappointing, for sure, because this (Charlotte) team has given us a lot of problems the last few years and then to not be able to win this one right before the break, it just doesn’t feel good, man,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who finished with 13 points, but didn’t score in the second half.
Even when Walker doesn’t come through, his Hornets teammates have often been there to pick him up and break the spirits of the Magic. With the Hornets clinging to a 99-97 lead late, Walker missed a layup with 29 seconds remaining, but veteran forward Marvin Williams got the rebound and Nicolas Batum drilled his fourth 3-pointer of the game to give Charlotte a sealing five-point lead.
``I mean, this one is on us and we should have closed that game,’’ said Magic forward Mario Hezonja, who finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds and three assists, but missed three of his four shots in the fourth quarter. ``This one is on me and on us because we had it and it was our game. Even at halftime, when I saw that they were up one, I was like, `What the (heck) is going on?’ This was our game and there was no way they were winning it, but we’ve just got to close it.’’
The Hornets are now 3-0 this season against the Magic, beating them twice in Charlotte in the first two meetings of the season and at the Amway Center on Wednesday. Orlando still has not beaten the Hornets since December of 2015.
``I have no idea, I have no idea and I can’t put my finger on an exact thing,’’ Walker said of how Charlotte has been able to run off such a winning streak against the Magic. ``They played pretty well tonight. It was a grind for both teams and we were able to come out on top.’’
Orlando strung together three straight wins early last week when it beat Miami, Cleveland and Atlanta in impressive fashion. However, the Magic dropped the final three games before the break in large part because of their struggles late in losses against Milwaukee, Chicago and Charlotte.
``We had offensive rebounds for good looks and really three open threes – or as open as Batum’s three and Kemba’s three – but they made their last two shots and we didn’t,’’ Vogel said. ``We are doing the right things, we’re playing the right way and we’re playing well. I’m proud of how we’re competing and fighting. There’s a lot of fight with this group and I’m proud of that.’’
On that Walker shot, he gave the ball up upon crossing half court and wisely used a Dwight Howard screen to tangle up Magic point guard D.J. Augustin. Walker used the small bit of free space to get up the 26-foot 3-pointer and ignored Augustin’s block attempt from the back side for a three that gave Charlotte a 99-97 lead with 1:11 remaining.
``He’s an All-Star and that’s what All-Stars do – they hit big shots, especially late-game shots,’’ said Augustin, who had 16 points, four assists and four 3-pointers himself. ``Kemba is a great player and that’s what he did tonight. We had a good little run there and we played good defense, I thought. I contested it from behind, but he made a big shot and that’s what All-Stars do.’’
Added Vogel: ``We did a good job on Kemba and he hit a really tough shot to give them the lead late with really good defense,’’ Vogel said. ``That’s all you can ask of your guys – to play good defense and try to force misses, but he hit a heck of a tough shot.’’
Howard, who was booed at times by an Amway Center crowd that still remembers him bolting Orlando in 2012, finished with 22 points, 13 rebounds and two blocked shots. In 14 games against the Magic while playing for the Lakers, Rockets, Hawks and Hornets, Howard has averaged 20.6 points, 12.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks against Orlando.
Charlotte, which came in riding its third four-game losing streak of the season, shot 43.2 percent from the floor, but it made 13 of 30 3-point shots. Orlando connected on just 41.9 percent of its shots, but did drill 15 of 37 3-pointers and 15 of 17 free throws.
Hezonja, who is in the best stretch of basketball in his 2 ½-year NBA career, had 10 points in a dazzling third-quarter performance and confidently drilled a jumper with 2:55 to play that put Orlando up a point. However, he twice missed late in the game on shots that could have been go-ahead baskets for the Magic.
``Offensively, we are there and we’re executing really well, but they were scoring a lot and they made their run and they had the lead, which was frustrating because it felt like, `We’ve got this game,’’’ Hezonja said. ``(At the end of games) we’ve got to make shots. We had the open looks and good shots, but we just didn’t make them.’’
Fournier had 13 first-half points, but he missed all four of his second-half shots. Three of those attempts were from beyond the 3-point stripe and he made just two of 10 3-point shots in the game. The most devastating miss was from the corner with a minute to play on what would have been a go-ahead 3-pointer.
Veteran center Marreese Speights added 16 points, five rebounds and four 3-pointers off the bench.
The Magic will now take the next seven nights off for the NBA All-Star Game, which will be held in Los Angeles on Sunday. Gordon, who missed his ninth straight game on Wednesday, was originally scheduled to compete in Saturday’s Slam Dunk contest, but he had to drop out of the event because of the strained hip flexor that had bothered him for two-plus weeks.
The break couldn’t be coming at a better time considering that Wednesday’s game was Orlando’s sixth in the past 10 days. The Magic started that grueling stretch off with defeats of Miami, Cleveland and Atlanta before dropping games against Milwaukee and Chicago.
The hope is that with the returns of Vucevic, Gordon, Isaac and Ross that the Magic can eventually find a way to get over the hump in close games and not lose them as they did on Wednesday when Walker hit another back-breaking shot. Vogel, Hezonja and others hope the additional firepower returning from injuries will able to add to the share-the-ball strategy that the team has adopted of late in playing solid basketball.
``It can go both ways. Those guys have been out for a long time and hopefully when they get back they stick to what we’ve been executing,’’ said Hezonja, who is averaging 8.8 points and 3.5 rebounds for the season. ``If that’s the case, we won’t have any problems at all. … Most of these guys who are out have been here for a long time and they know what’s going on, so I don’t think it will be a problem. They are some of our really good players and they are really going to be a boost for us.’’
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