Postgame Report: Magic vs. Pacers

by John Denton

ORLANDO – In the hours leading up to Friday’s game at the Amway Center, the Indiana Pacers had to deal with a serious bout of food poisoning that wiped out forward Domantas Sabonis, bothered a couple of other players and even had head coach Nate McMillan feeling under the weather.

However, once the game started, the Orlando Magic were the ones feeling queasy and as if they might lose their lunch at any time because of the suffocating pressure applied once again by the rugged Pacers.

Not long after Orlando’s sluggish and sloppy 112-90 loss to the short-handed Pacers, Magic coach Steve Clifford sounded sick over how his squad had gotten away from a share-the-ball style that had helped it go 11-8 over the previous 19 games. After watching Orlando shoot just 40.9 percent from the floor, hand out only 20 assists, kick the ball away 17 times and fail to apply much defensive pressure to the Pacers, Clifford said the play on the Amway Center parquet on Friday reminded him of the team’s troublesome 2-6 start to the season.

``We had no player movement, no ball movement and offensively we were just taking one-pass shots. We were right back to the (beginning of the season) and it reminded me of the Charlotte game,’’ Clifford said of a 32-point loss in the second game of the season. ``There was nothing that put pressure on the defense and nothing that took energy of thought. And, defensively, we’re good when we’re into the ball, but let’s face it, it was (Wednesday’s loss to) Denver all over again. We were never into the ball, never had ball pressure and late to talk.

``The difference in this league between OK and good, good, very good and great is you’ve got to play every night,’’ Clifford continued. ``A team like us, we’re good enough to beat anybody, but we can’t have many more of these nights because we’re not going to just show up and beat people. We have to put a lot into it to win and there’s nothing wrong with that.’’

Orlando (12-14) seemed as if it was in perfect position to notch its first victory in nearly three years against Indiana (15-10) when the Pacers started the game without two of their best players in Victor Oladipo (sore right knee) and Sabonis (food poisoning). However, other than a brief lead in the opening minutes and a run to within four in the third quarter, such an outcome was never in the cards on Friday for Orlando.

Indiana got 26 points from long-time Magic killer Bojan Bogdanovic and its top-ranked defense smothered Orlando for the Pacers’ eighth straight win against the snake-bitten Magic.

``I thought we lacked energy on both ends of the floor – aggressively on defense and offensively the ball could have skipped around better,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who had 20 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and three 3-pointers. ``We probably needed to work them more on the defensive end. (The Pacers) are really tied together and they have some quality defenders. There’s no indecision with them and they know exactly what they want to do (defensively). And they score the ball, too.’’

Orlando lost a second straight game and dropped to a disappointing 6-8 at the Amway Center. The home fans had little to cheer for all night as the Pacers completely bottled up the Magic’s offense and they executed significantly better on the opposite end of the floor.

The only good news to come out of the night was the Magic surviving a major scare late in the first quarter when standout center Nikola Vucevic – the team’s leading scorer and rebounder all season – accidentally landed on Myles Turner’s foot, causing his ankle to twist. Vucevic was forced to stay in the game for a possession and scored over Turner before hobbling to the locker room. After a short stint out of the action so that he could get his ankle re-taped, Vucevic returned in the second period.

Vucevic, who finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds, said that while Friday’s poor showing was disappointing, there’s no need to be alarmed just because the Magic have dropped two straight games.

``If anything we’ll have time to learn and regroup in the two days before we play Dallas,’’ said Vucevic, who was hopeful that his ankle would be troublesome going forward. ``We’ll go back and practice and look at some of the stuff that we didn’t do well. Usually this season, we’ve been pretty good after we’d have a bad night like tonight and we’d respond in a great way. We’ve learned our lessons from this and we understand that playing this way isn’t going to work and we have to change it quickly.’’

Two nights after losing an overtime heartbreaker to the surging Denver Nuggets, the Magic lost an early three-point edge in the first period and never led again. They got within three in the third quarter, but Indiana responded with a 15-2 burst that ended the intrigue. The Magic trailed by 12 at halftime, by 16 after three periods and by as much as 25 points in the fourth quarter.

Remarkably, the Magic made just 20 of 41 shots in the paint on the night.

The ugly loss to Indiana was nothing new to the Magic. Orlando has now lost eight straight games against the Pacers, a streak that dates back to March of 2016. Also, the Magic haven’t beaten the Pacers in Orlando since February of 2014 – another losing streak that also spans eight games. And, sadly for the Magic, the futility against the Pacers extends even further back. They’ve now lost 15 of the last 16 meetings against Indiana and 19 of 21 since 2013.

``Maybe the way that they defend and the way that they play, just hurts us,’’ Vucevic said.

Evan Fournier (nine points), D.J. Augustin (five points), Jonathan Isaac (six points) and Mo Bamba (four points) struggled to find the range with their shots. Terrence Ross added 11 points off the bench, but even he missed four of his five attempts from 3-point range.

Indiana had six players reach double figures in scoring. Reserve guard Cory Joseph scored 15, while Thaddeus Young chipped in 14 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Former Magic center Kyle O’Quinn had 12 points, 10 rebounds and some stellar rim protection for the Pacers.

The Magic will be back on the practice floor Saturday and Sunday before leaving for their next extended road trip. Orlando will play the Mavericks in Dallas on Monday. After that, the team will depart for Mexico City where it will serve as the home team for two games for the NBA Mexico City Games 2018. The Magic will face the Chicago Bulls on Thursday in Mexico City and will play the Utah Jazz on Dec. 16 (Saturday afternoon) before returning back to Central Florida. It will be the franchise’s second trip to Mexico City after playing a preseason game there in 2012.

Clifford acknowledged that fatigue might have played a role in Friday’s flat performance, but he stressed that the Magic must recover quickly because the NBA’s marathon-like schedule in unrelenting.

``We’ve had a tough schedule and the only thing is … it’s not getting any easier now,’’ Clifford said. ``We’re going to be gone for a week here (to Texas and Mexico City) and then we’ll be back and then we’ve got a six-game West Coast trip again. So, this next group of games it doesn’t get any easier. (Fatigue and travel) are valid points, but it’s also part of this league. We’ve got to be able to play through it.’’

Down 12 after a rugged first half, Orlando – a good third-quarter team all season – made a charge at the Pacers. When Gordon followed up a miss with a thunderous dunk, Orlando was within 63-59 of Indiana midway through the third period. However, Indiana’s response – a 15-2 burst – broke the game open and helped the Pacers push their advantage back to 86-70 by the start of the fourth quarter.

Clifford said having a consistent focus, effort and playing style are important in times like Friday when the Magic are weary and battling minor injuries. If they are together in terms of the plan of attack and execution, the Magic can use the collective will of the group to push them through difficult nights like Friday.

``Playing smart, moving the ball and developing the habits can help when you’re not at optimum energy and you can still play a smart game,’’ Clifford said. ``One of our biggest qualities is that we’re smart and when we play well, we play smart games. We’ve been playing very good basketball and tonight we didn’t at either end of the floor.’’

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.