ORLANDO – After his Orlando Magic squandered a game that he thought was infinitely winnable – largely because of the enormous disparity in production between the starters and the reserves – frustrated head coach Steve Clifford had something to get off his chest late Wednesday night.
The Magic’s execution, focus and intensity were solid for times, but also lacking for long stretches of a dispiriting 103-96 loss to the Detroit Pistons. Afterward, Clifford – Orlando’s first-year head coach – talked of the need for his franchise to immediately raise expectations. For the Magic to finally break out of the doldrums of the past six seasons and ultimately become the kind of team that plays consistently on a nightly basis, Clifford boldly stated that there needs to be an increased expectation that players exhibit an all-out effort and maximum focus at all times.
When Orlando (4-7) fell short of that on Wednesday while losing to Detroit (5-5), Clifford used a harsh tone in his postgame news conference to express his frustration. In the process of trying to light a proverbial fire under his players’ feet, Clifford’s words just might have scorched some of the earth inside the Magic’s locker room.
``You can’t play five guys and win, and everybody’s got to be ready to play,’’ Clifford fumed after Orlando’s reserves struggled badly to undermine an otherwise strong performance by the starting five. ``You know what one of the things that does have to change is that all of us have to have expectations of playing well. … It’s not OK (to lose). This league is about winning in the playoffs and that’s one of our problems – the expectations are so much different than when I was here before (as an assistant coach with the Magic from 2007-12). Those guys didn’t play well back then, well they heard about it and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
``And these (current Magic) guys need to hear about it, too, because they are good enough to play better and I need to hear about it too (as the head coach). That’s all fine and it’s part of this,’’ a fiery Clifford continued. ``But to say, `Let’s find out what’s good (about the loss); let’s not.’ Let’s just tell the story. The bench was embarrassing. It was embarrassing, that’s it.’’
The Magic saw their first winning streak of the season vanish when they were unable to sustain their play throughout the game. While Orlando’s five starters all had a positive net rating while on the floor, each of the five substitutes had a double-digit negative rating in terms of plus/minus figures. Terrence Ross, Orlando’s top sub all season, scored 15 points and hit two 3-pointers in 27 minutes, but the rest of Orlando’s bench players combined to make just one of 14 shots while also committing eight turnovers.
Orlando led by 15 points in the first quarter and was up 11 late in the third quarter, but those advantages disappeared with mostly reserves on the floor. Clifford used starters Evan Fournier (27 points and three 3-pointers), Nikola Vucevic (14 points, nine rebounds and four assists), D.J. Augustin (16 points and seven assists) all at least 30 minutes, but play continually nose-dived when reserves came in.
``It was just sloppy play and we can’t keep doing that,’’ said Magic reserve point guard Jerian Grant, who had six assists, but also missed two shots and turned the ball over twice in his 17 minutes on the floor. ``We’re losing our team games and it’s tough, but we’ve got to get it fixed and we’ve got to get it fixed now.’’
Jarell Martin and Jonathon Simmons both missed all five of their shots in nearly 20 minutes of action. Martin, who is in the rotation largely because of the ankle injury to second-year forward Jonathan Isaac, was forced into action when starting forward Aaron Gordon (15 points, 10 rebounds and six assists) and Vucevic were in foul trouble while fighting inside against Detroit’s Andre Drummond (23 points, 19 rebounds and three steals) and Blake Griffin (20 points).
Orlando’s 20-year-old rookie Mo Bamba, the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, struggled through his roughest night as a pro. He had two points, two rebounds and two blocked shots with three turnovers in 13 minutes.
With mostly reserves on the floor, the Magic missed their first seven shots of the fourth quarter and turned the ball over seven times to lose control of the game. During that drought, Orlando saw a two-point lead devolve into a 92-84 deficit.
``The starters were really good; the bench was, `whoa!’ Clifford said. ``I mean really bad and not even competitive in either half. So, it makes it hard to win in this league, (over) 48 minutes when we’re in eight (games) in 13 (nights) – (bench) guys have to be professional, get ready to play and that’s it. We don’t have anybody who is going to average 28 (points) and everybody has to be ready to play.’’
An Amway Center crowd of 16,103 looked on mostly in horror as the Magic scored just 16 points in the final period and made only five of 16 shots. Detroit, which opened the season with four straight victories but followed it with five consecutive losses, won despite making just 41.1 percent of its shots. The Pistons did hit 11 3-pointers – five of them coming in the decisive fourth quarter.
Orlando came into Wednesday riding a modest two-game winning streak after coming out victorious in San Antonio on Sunday and defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in dramatic fashion on Monday. The Magic let a 26-point lead shrink to five late in the defeat of the Spurs and in Monday’s victory, the Magic had to rally from five down in the final 30 seconds – something the franchise hasn’t done in 10 years – because of a poor third quarter.
On Monday, Fournier was there to bail out the Magic with a buzzer-beating winner. On Wednesday, Orlando’s inconsistency came back to bite it.
``Playing good for five minutes and then bad for five minutes is the story of our season so far,’’ said Fournier, who made 12 of 19 shots and three of six 3-pointers. ``The inconsistencies are obvious. We need to do better. We need to find that consistency for 48 minutes. Right now, it’s like we gave that one away.’’
Just as they did early in the night, the Magic let a poor finish to a quarter spoil much of their hard work. Orlando made 12 of its first 16 shots of the third period to build a second-half lead as large as 11 points. However, Detroit charged back with the final seven points of the third to get within 80-78 by the start of the fourth quarter.
The same thing happened early in the night as Orlando surged to a 15-point bulge only to see the Pistons pump in the final 10 points of the first quarter.
``You have to put a team away, especially a team like that that’s coming off five losses in a row and they are hungry and want to win,’’ said Vucevic, who had one of the best highlights of the night when he dunked with authority with his left hand over Drummond late in the third quarter. ``From 11, you go up 17, 18 to 20 and the game is in your hand and you just have to finish it. It’s little things that we didn’t do. Give (the Pistons) credit for fighting back, but it’s not like did anything we couldn’t defend. We just didn’t do the things that were working well. When you are up 11, you have to keep being aggressive and trying to build the lead.’’
Instead of building the lead, the Magic squandered two of them – in the first quarter when up 15 because of a 17-0 Detroit run; and an 11-point edge in the third quarter because of a 22-4 Pistons’ run.
Clifford blamed his second unit’s struggles on players being ``disorganized on offense’’ and ``not in the spots and not knowing the calls’’ and ``not back on defense.’’
Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic and someone who has endured countless rebuilds as Orlando has tried to return to its glory days, like that Clifford demanded after the game that expectations be raised. He said players have to expect to be great and that they must play with confidence. He is confident that Clifford is just the coach who will demand more from players and hold them accountable when they fall short – as he did on Wednesday when the Magic squandered a winnable game.
``There are some things that we need to change as players, maybe some habits that we as players have that need to change,’’ Vucevic said candidly. ``Obviously, if that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have won 20 (something) games the last couple of years. Obviously, there’s a lot of work for us to do. We have times when we (play well) and times when we don’t do it at all. We have to get to a point where we do it for 48 minutes.’’
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