By John Denton Jan. 3, 2018
ORLANDO – To pair with his fashionably ripped jeans, neon orange jacket and black skull cap, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon chose a memento from one of his all-time favorite movies – a ``Space Jam’’ jersey personalized with his name and No. 00 on the back.
As it turns out, the wardrobe choice was fitting on Wednesday as Gordon and his Magic mates were bullied and battered most of the night just as the ``Looney Toons’’ squad was by the rough-and-tumble ``Monstars’’ in the 1996 live-action/animated hit movie.
On this night, however, there would be no hot-shooting superstar such as Michael Jordan to come and rescue Gordon and his Magic. Instead, the results proved almost comical at times when Orlando struggled with its shooting as badly as it has at any point this season.
With their top two scoring threats, Evan Fournier and Gordon, struggling to make shots, the Magic set a season low for points in a quarter – 12 in the first – and never recovered in a forgettable 116-98 loss to the high-octane Houston Rockets.
``Sometimes the shots just aren’t going to fall. We got the looks that we wanted to get, but they didn’t fall,’’ Gordon said after missing his first eight shots and finishing seven of 23 shooting for 16 points. ``It happens, but you just keep shooting. As much I was missing I had no worries that the next one was going to go through. I’ve got to keep shooting.’’
An Amway Center crowd of 18,588 looked on mostly in horror as the Magic (12-27) missed 16 of their first 18 shots and shot just 38.5 percent for the game. Orlando set a season low for points in the first quarter (12), and things only got worse from there. The one-sided game – one in which the Magic never led and trailed Houston (27-9) by as much as 28 points – was Orlando’s third consecutive defeat. The times when Orlando got off to an encouraging start and was once 6-2 and later 8-2 are a distant memory after it has gone just 4-23 since Nov. 10.
On this night, shooting was largely to blame for the poor showing. The Magic shot five of 23 in the first quarter, 32.6 percent in the opening half and hit only six of 31 3-pointers for the game. A distinct lack of ball movement and the lack of success when the team did swing the ball from side to side led to just 16 assists.
``I thought we had a lot of good possessions early on that we didn’t make the shot – either at the rim or the 3-point line,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. ``There were some disjointed possessions because of (the Rockets’) switching, that’s what they do. That’s why they’re a good team and one of the favorites in the West. I thought we got a lot of good looks and we were just short on a lot of stuff.’’
Orlando picked a poor time to struggle offensively what with the always-potent Rockets hitting town. That confluence of ill-timed events gave the Magic little shot on Wednesday – even with Houston superstar James Harden hobbled by a hamstring injury.
Orlando’s struggles were a continuation of what started on Monday night in Brooklyn. In that unsightly 98-95 loss, Orlando shot just 36.5 percent – and only 29.4 percent in the second half – to go with six-of-31 accuracy from 3-point range.
Remarkably, Wednesday was even worse as the Magic start to the finish. Houston, meanwhile, made 47.2 percent of its shots, handed out 25 assists and drilled 15 3-pointers.
``We tried to make the extra pass throughout the game and we didn’t get the payoff,’’ Vogel said. ``When you’re not making shots, everything in the game gets harder, you press a little more and your focus on the defensive end slips. We’ve got to overcome that.’’
Gerald Green, who was signed last week in the wake of Houston’s injuries, scored 27 points and made seven 3-pointers. Center Clint Capela had 21 points and eight rebounds for the Rockets, while Chris Paul orchestrated the Houston offense beautifully with 13 assists and eight points.
Mercifully, Orlando will now have a two-day stretch to work on bettering its offense. The Magic will have Thursday and Friday to practice before hosting LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night. Orlando thumped the Cavs 114-91 in October for one of its best victories of the season.
Point guard Elfrid Payton had 14 points and five steals, but he turned the ball over five times. Mario Hezonja scored 14 points, grabbed nine rebounds and handed out two assists, while Arron Afflalo chipped in 11 off the bench.
The toll of being without standout center Nikola Vucevic (fractured left hand) and front-line guard Terrence Ross (knee sprain) is hitting the Magic hard, especially on the offensive end of the floor. Orlando had started running more of the offense through the 7-foot Vucevic and not having him at the controls has dramatically slowed the Magic’s share-the-ball approach to offense.
Further complicating matters for the injury-ravaged Magic is the fact that starting guard Jonathon Simmons missed the second half with back spasms. Simmons, who has been in a week-long slump, made one of three shots in the first half and finished with three points.
``It just started bothering me today when I woke up from my nap,’’ Simmons said of his back pain. ``Offensively, we had a lot of good looks and we missed them. We just couldn’t make shots tonight.’’
Gordon, who was just four days removed from a spectacular 39-point effort against the Miami Heat, missed nine of his first 10 shots. By then Orlando was already in a 55-41 hole.
Gordon was the first player out of the locker room at the half to get up extra shots, but it only helped mildly. He made three of nine shots in the third period, but the Magic still found themselves staring at an 89-66 deficit heading into the final period.
Gordon found a few holes that allowed him to get to the rim in the second half, but neither him nor his team could overcome the dreadful start.
``Not in that first quarter, nothing felt good. Nothing felt good until the second half,’’ Gordon said. ``I’ve just got to do a better job pregame of getting myself into a rhythm. When it comes down to it, I’ve got to look at other ways to get buckets – offensive rebounding and transition. The Rockets do a good job with me, being physical and taking away a lot of cuts and making sure they box me out. So, I’ve just got to find a better rhythm.
Further complicating matters are the struggles of Fournier, who looked rattled and out of sync once again. Arguably Orlando’s best scorer the past three seasons, Fournier made two of 11 tries and missed all five of his 3-point shots on Wednesday, making him six of 26 and zero-for-10 from 3-point range in his past two games.
Vogel said it’s time for his team to get to work on bettering the offense, a process that will begin in practice on Thursday.
``We’ve just got to get back at it, hopefully get our legs back under us and have two good practices to get ready for Cleveland,’’ he said.
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