DALLAS – Even at their best, the Orlando Magic are well aware that their margin between winning and losing is often paper-thin and they know that they can hardly handle playing while not at full strength.
On Monday, the Magic got another painful reminder of those realities.
Forced to play without standout guard Evan Fournier and prized rookie Mo Bamba for dramatically different reasons, the Magic struggled to muster much offense all night and suffered an unsightly 101-76 loss to the surprisingly surging Dallas Mavericks.
``They went under on every pick-and-roll and they helped off everyone except D.J. (Augustin) and dared us to shoot jumpers and we didn’t shoot the ball well,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``They did a good job and obviously we weren’t as crisp as we needed to be.’’
Orlando (12-15) lost its third straight game when it shot just 36 percent from the floor and made only eight of 28 3-point shots. The Magic’s 76 points were a season low, significantly fewer than the previous low of 87 in Denver on Nov. 23.
On this night, Orlando never led and trailed by as much as 28 points in the fourth period. In addition to their shooting woes from the floor, the Magic tied a franchise record for fewest free throw attempts in a game (five). They narrowly eclipsed the franchise low for makes in a game (three) by making four over 48 minutes.
``I think energy-wise we were there, but as far as execution and shots not falling, it wasn’t there,’’ said Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, who got his first start since early November but scored just four points in 27 minutes. ``The ball was just sticking a little bit.’’
Magic standouts Nikola Vucevic (eight points and 16 rebounds) and Aaron Gordon (10 points) had little working all night and made just eight of 30 shots combined in the game.
``It was probably my worst game in a little while,’’ said Vucevic, who made only four of 15 shots and missed on his only 3-point attempt of the game. ``I didn’t play well at all and I have to be better, especially on the offensive end because the team relies on me a lot. Not even the shots not falling, my aggressiveness and my purpose of play weren’t at a level like they need to be or where they have been all season. So, I just need to pick it up the next game.’’
The Magic were severely weakened on Monday against the Mavericks (14-11) without Fournier and Bamba. Fournier was out because of a private family situation, while Bamba was suspended for a violation of team rules. The Magic are hopeful that they will have both players available by Thursday’s game. Clifford called Bamba’s suspension ``a one-game thing’’ and said he should play by Thursday.
``It’s just bad on my part and I need to be better. I’ve got to be on time,’’ Bamba said, referring to his tardiness at the team’s walk-through meeting on Monday. ``It was very difficult (watching). You want to be out there, and you want to impact the game anyway possible. You hope for a different outcome, but you get to sit back and watch and see what you could do better.’’
Orlando had little offense outside of guard Jonathon Simmons, who broke out of his season-long shooting slump and poured in 18 points. He made seven of 10 shots and two of four 3-point shots.
Outside of Simmons, Orlando’s other four starters made just 13 of 42 shots (30.9 percent) and did not attempt a free throw in 109 combined minutes.
Khem Birch played in place of Bamba and chipped in eight points, six rebounds and an assist in 22 minutes.
Despite low expectations for the season and still being without legendary forward Dirk Nowitzki (ankle surgery), Dallas has won 11 of 14 games. It has been almost unstoppable at home, winning 12 home games. The Mavs have now beaten the Magic seven straight times in Dallas – a winning streak that dates to Jan. 8, 2011.
Harrison Barnes scored 19 points and made five 3-pointers – many of them set up by passes from hot-shot rookie Luka Doncic. The guard from Slovenia made just two of 11 shots and had only seven points, but he had a big impact on the game with 11 rebounds and nine assists. Jalen Brunson (17 points) and Dwight Powell (16 points) also played well for the Mavs.
In Fournier’s absence on Monday, the Magic shifted Gordon to small forward and Simmons to shooting guard and returned Isaac to the starting lineup at the power forward position.
``It hurts us because (Fournier) has guarded primary scorer’s all year, so it hurts our defense,’’ Clifford said. ``The big part is we play through (Fournier) so much.
``One or two nights without one of your better players, you can get by with it because our guys are good enough to do that,’’ the coach added. ``But when it gets to be a week and two weeks, it’s hard to make up for. But for one night, we have more than enough to make up for (Fournier’s loss) and win.’’
Fournier, who had played in all of Orlando’s 26 games prior to Monday, ranks third on the team in scoring (15.1), second in assists (3.8) and he’s tied for first in steals (1.0).
The Magic will spend Tuesday travelling south of the U.S. border so that they can take part in the Mexico City Games 2018. Orlando will serve as the home team for games against Chicago (Thursday night) and Utah (Saturday afternoon).
The trip to Mexico City comes at a time when the Magic are already a bit road weary. The team wrapped up a six-game road run that covered 13 days and saw the squad play in all four U.S. time zones.
``It’s a long season and everybody (in the NBA) is fatigued now,’’ Gordon said. ``We’ve got to come out with more energy than what we had tonight. … We’ve got to go down to Mexico and get these two (games).’’
Orlando came off that road trip and dropped home games to the Denver Nuggets and the Indiana Pacers. Now, facing their first extended losing streak for the first time since dropping four in a row early in the season, the Magic will need to respond with more strong play on the road. Already this season, the Magic have beaten the Celtics, Lakers, Spurs and Heat in hostile road venues.
Down 12 at the half, the Magic saw the deficit swell to as much as 25 points because of their sputtering offense. Orlando made just five of 20 tries and one of seven 3-point heaves in the third period and trailed 75-53 at the start of the fourth quarter.
``We just didn’t come out with enough energy in the second half,’’ Gordon said.
Clearly feeling the effects of being without Fournier, the Magic’s offense was mostly a mess in the first half. Orlando made just 18 of 46 shots and only three of 14 3-pointers and trailed the Mavs 52-40 at intermission.
Already struggling to generate much offense with their poor shooting, the Magic made matters worse with 10 turnovers – mistakes that resulted in 13 points for the Mavs in the first half. Also, the Mavericks outscored the Magic 10-1 from the free throw line in the game’s first 24 minutes.
Clifford said his team has more than enough talent and depth to overcome the loss of a couple of players being out – even though it didn’t look that way on a forgettable Monday in Dallas. How the Magic respond going forward could determine whether their losing streak ends at three games or continues.
``We’re good enough. Tell me that we went out there and played great and lost and I’ll say, `OK,’’ Clifford huffed. ``To me (pointing to absent players) is the easy way out in this league. These guys are all good players and they’ve got to play better.’’
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