ORLANDO – Some 90 seconds into Friday’s game, Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford said he turned to one of his assistants along the bench and remarked that he didn’t like his team’s collective body language and he had a bad feeling about the direction the night was headed.
Much to his chagrin, Clifford was dead on about the Magic’s readiness to play, their willingness to fight through adversity and the result that was coming. Not long after the Los Angeles Clippers hung a humbling 120-95 defeat on the Magic, Clifford admitted that for the first time this season he was highly disappointed in his team’s approach and perseverance.
``The effort level, body language, purpose of play, one-on-one things, playing with discipline … the first quarter we were good and after that it was like we’d never practiced,’’ Clifford said dejectedly. ``Difficult, difficult night and like I just told the guys – and we haven’t been like that – but this was not even close to being acceptable. Not for a professional basketball team and not if you’re prideful.
``For one of the first times since we (started), we just had the wrong, wrong attitude,’’ the coach continued. ``We have a team that I still believe is good enough to be one of the (positive) stories of this league, but we have to have great attitude, great fight and great readiness and we had none of that (on Friday).’’
The Magic (2-6) lost for a fourth consecutive time since beating the Celtics in Boston on Oct. 22. What made the night even more regrettable was the fact that Orlando had a decided rest advantage after having been off since Tuesday, while the Clippers (5-4) had played a night earlier in Philadelphia.
On this night, the Magic never led after taking a 22-21 lead late in the first period and they trailed by as much as 27 points before the 15,953 fans at the Amway Center. Orlando was actually better offensively than it has been in the past two weeks, but it fouled too much defensively, got repeatedly beat on the boards and was again burned by guard Lou Williams (28 points) and forward Tobias Harris (21 points). Williams has long been a Magic-killer, while Harris got more revenge against a Magic franchise he played for from 2013-15.
``We started OK, but as the game went on the readiness, the physicality and passion of beating these (Clippers) guys went down and we can’t have that,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who scored 19 points on seven-of-12 shooting. ``It’s just about being ready to compete for 48 minutes. In the NBA every game is hard, and you’ve got to be ready to get hit, get back up and hit harder. We definitely didn’t do that tonight.’’
Orlando came into Friday having played the NBA’s toughest schedule thus far and the surprising Clippers won’t do anything to hurt the quality of Orlando’s opponents thus far. L.A. hit 47.7 percent of its shots, drilled 13 3-pointers and sank 25 of 33 free throws. Making the Clippers even more effective was their 50-40 rebounding advantage over Orlando.
As if the night wasn’t already frustrating enough for the Magic, they had injury added to the indignity of the lopsided loss just before halftime. Second-year forward Jonathan Isaac inadvertently landed on the foot of L.A. center Boban Marjanovic late in the second quarter and sprained his right ankle again. X-rays were negative for fractures, but Isaac admitted he was still in pain after the game and was unsure about when he’d be able to return.
Isaac’s rookie season was marred by a series of ankle injuries that limited him to just 27 games. He left the floor with 2:51 left in the first half, headed straight to the locker room and did not return.
``It is the same (kind of injury) so you can say it’s a little annoying,’’ said Isaac, who had two points and a rebound in 12 minutes before rolling his ankle. ``(There’s) not really any swelling, so that’s a good sign. I’ll just take it day by day, come in (on Saturday) and see how I feel.’’
Orlando got 22 points and 11 rebounds from center Nikola Vucevic, while D.J. Augustin chipped in 13 points. Rookie Mo Bamba added seven points, five rebounds and three assists in 20 minutes. Franchise fixture Aaron Gordon attempted just five shots in 22 minutes and finished with four points, three rebounds and a steal.
Already, it appears as if the Magic have hit a crossroads in their season. And it comes at a time when they are in one of their most grueling stretches with eight games in a 13-night window.
``It’s a long season, but at the same time if you dig too big of a hole, it’s hard to come out of it,’’ said Vucevic, Orlando’s longest-tenured player at seven seasons. ``We must figure it out sooner than later. We don’t have the luxury of time. We must get it together.’’
The Magic connected on 44.4 percent of their shots despite making only four of 17 3-pointers. The four made 3-pointers were a new low for the season. The 17 attempts were also dramatically fewer than the 43 attempted in each of the previous two games – a number that tied for the all-time franchise record.
The Clippers, who lost 122-113 a night earlier in Philadelphia, came into Friday with a decided rest disadvantage, but that didn’t bother them. They also came in having dominated the series against the Magic in recent years. L.A. now has a 10-game win streak over the Magic with five of them being in Orlando.
Williams, who had 16 points in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter, delivered a knockout blow for the Magic with 7:50 to play when he buried a step-back 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of rookie center Mo Bamba. Even when he missed, Williams scored as his 3-pointer later in the final period counted when referees ruled that Bamba had goal-tended an errant shot while grabbing a rebound. Television replays showed that Bamba should not have been called for basket interference on the play.
``He’s just an amazing, amazing shooter,’’ Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of Williams. ``And he shoots from all angles. He is a professional scorer. And you see it every time he plays.’’
The Magic will practice on Saturday in Orlando prior to heading to San Antonio where they will face the Spurs on Sunday. Tipoff for that game is 7 p.m. ET.
Sunday’s game is the start of a rather difficult back-to-back set of games and it continues a taxing stretch for Orlando. After playing in San Antonio on Sunday, the Magic will be back at the Amway Center on Monday night to host the Cleveland Cavaliers. It will be Orlando’s second back-to-back of the season.
Clifford, who had raved about the hustle and focus of his team in Thursday’s practice and Friday morning’s shoot-around session, knows his team doesn’t have much time to turn things around.
``I think we have guys who badly want to win,’’ Clifford said. ``There have been tough times here, but one of the things that has to change so that we can have success is the every-night readiness. Maybe that’s something that’s going to be harder than I thought.’’
Down 13 at the half, the Magic got within nine points of the Clippers three different occasions in the third period. However, they were never able to maintain the momentum and L.A. pushed its advantage back to 87-72 by the start of the fourth.
Orlando’s offense showed some improvement in the first half, but the inability of its defense to slow the Clippers early in the game led to a 57-44 deficit at halftime. That was an ominous sign considering that the Magic came into the night 2-0 when leading at the half and 0-5 when trailing at the break.
Now, the Magic are trying to quickly pick up the pieces and prevent yet another season from spiraling out of control.
``It’s not even about wins or losses now; you should never have a night where you lose because of the readiness,’’ Fournier fumed. ``We should always be ready. We’re not the (Golden State) Warriors. The Warriors can show up and wait two quarters or three sometimes, get it going and actually win. But we can’t do that.
``We’ve got to watch film, rest, get ready and get our minds straight,’’ he added.
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