By John Denton March 14, 2014
ORLANDO – For much of Friday night, it was difficult to tell which team was smack-dab in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race and which team was merely playing out the string of games and seeking a glimmer of incremental improvement.
An Orlando Magic team that came into the game slumping fell into an early hole, but showed its character by responding each time that the vastly improved Washington Wizards tried to pull away.
But what Orlando couldn’t overcome on this night was letting a six-point lead slip away in the final minute of regulation. Washington rallied behind all-star guard John Wall to tie the game, and the Wizards won 105-101 in a back-and-forth overtime period that saw the lead change eight different times.
``We had some improvement, but we felt like we had that game,’’ Magic forward Tobias Harris said. ``We’re up six with one minute, that’s our game. I know I feel and the guys in this locker room feel we should be in here enjoying that win. But we lost the game and it’s a tough one. We need to execute better down the stretch.’’
Leading 97-96 with 90 seconds left in overtime, Orlando (19-48) seemed ready to go three points ahead when 6-foot point guard Jameer Nelson (13 points, eight assists and six rebounds) swiped a pass and went in for a layup. However, Washington 6-foot-5 guard Bradley Beal swatted the layup from behind and Trevor Ariza (21 points and 11 rebounds) drilled his fourth 3-pointer of the night. Instead of Orlando potentially being up 99-96, the sequence moved the Wizards (34-31) ahead 99-97.
``He made and exceptional play and it’s up there in the level of plays that he’s made. He chased me down when he could have easily have given up on the play and he got me right at the rim,’’ Nelson said. ``They had the momentum, John (Wall) started making threes and they started getting offensive rebounds and things started clicking. We played our hearts out, but we just didn’t have the right outcome.’’
Washington, which started the night sixth in the Eastern Conference, won in Orlando for the first time since Feb. 5, 2010. The Wizards had lost seven straight times in Orlando before Friday. Wall scored 12 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter and overtime period and Beal had 20 points to key the victory.
The Wizards had throttled the Magic in two games in Washington, beating them 98-80 on Dec. 2 and 115-106 on Feb. 25. But Orlando hung tough throughout Friday’s game and seemed poised to shock the Wizards. Instead, the Magic dropped their fifth straight game. Also, Orlando is 1-5 in overtime games this season.
``It’s painful and it hurts, but you learn from it,’’ Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. ``This is a team that has beat up on us in the past in a lot of ways, whether it’s getting to the rim or posting up their bigs. Tonight, we played hard enough to win, so that’s a good start right there. If you can say that at the end of the game, a lot of times that’s a good thing.’’
Tobias Harris led the Magic with 21 points, while Arron Afflalo chipped in 18 points. Victor Oladipo scored 11 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter and OT period.
Orlando was seemingly in great position to win the game in regulation with an 85-79 lead with a minute to play. But Wall – who missed 10 of his first 13 shots – drilled a 3-pointer and hit two of three free throws. Wall then buried the game-tying 3-pointer with 10.6 seconds to play. Vaughn put the ball in Oladipo’s hands, but his contested 28-footer over Trevor Ariza was well long, necessitating overtime.
For much of the night, it appeared as if the Magic might be on the verge of setting some franchise records. Orlando didn’t attempt a free throw in the first quarter and they had just two tries (with no makes) in the first three quarters. Orlando’s first free throw makes of the game didn’t come until the 6:45 mark of the fourth period when Afflalo drilled two tries. The Magic escaped setting franchise records for fewest free throw makes and attempts late in the fourth quarter when Tobias Harris calmly connected on two tries.
Orlando fewest free throw makes ever in its 25-year history was three set last April. The fewest free throw attempts in a game (five) was also set in 2013.
The Magic may have dodged a serious loss when standout center Nikola Vucevic (eight points and 12 rebounds) sprained his left ankle and retreated to the locker room, but he returned late in the third quarter. Vucevic twisted his ankle on a pick-and-roll play. It is the same ankle that he’s sprained twice earlier this season and cost him six games.
The Magic will be off on Saturday as the franchise hosts its ``Black Tie and Tennies’’ gala. The event is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Orlando Magic Youth Foundation, which has given away more than $21 million to local non-profit organizations in the team’s 25-year history.
The third period was filled with wild swings in momentum. Orlando started the second half with an 11-2 run – nine of which came on jump shots from Afflalo – and the Magic ultimately went ahead by as many as nine points at 60-51. But Washington responded with a 16-6 spurt that allowed it to take a 67-66 lead into the fourth.
The Magic were within 44-41 at the half, which proved to be quite an accomplishment considering that they once trailed by as much as 15 in the early minutes of the first quarter. Orlando fell into a troubling 23-8 hole before storming back into the game. A 24-8 spurt by the Magic allowed them to incredibly take the lead at 32-31 midway through the second period.
``There are two things, you either win or you lose,’’ Harris said. ``Tonight we lost. It was a good effort, but at the end of the day when you look at our schedule and the calendar you see an `L’ next to Orlando Magic versus the Washington Wizards. The next game we have to improve. We take what we can from the game and we learn from it.’’