By John Denton Nov. 22, 2017
MINNEAPOLIS – As sharp and precise as the Orlando Magic were in Wednesday’s first quarter, they were just as inefficient in a sloppy second period. Then, following a third quarter that was among the worst stretches of the season, the Magic got it together in the fourth and nearly pulled off one of the most stirring comebacks in years.
However, because the Magic were wildly erratic and frustratingly lacking in urgency once again, they remain in the throes of a losing streak that is threatening their season.
Orlando got smashed in the third quarter a second straight game – one so lopsided that not even a gallant fourth-quarter rally could erase it – and it had to stomach a 124-118 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves that resulted in a sixth consecutive defeat.
Once 6-2 three weeks ago, the Magic (8-10) were once again left searching for answers after their defense was shelled, their ball-handling was sloppy and their focus was lacking for the entire 48 minutes. Minnesota (11-7) had four starters score at least 20 points thanks, in large part, to a third quarter in which it throttled the Magic 41-18.
``Our starters came back in a little mad about how they performed in the third quarter and we’ve got to play mad for four quarters,’’ flustered Magic coach Frank Vogel said. ``We’ve lost six in a row and we’ve got to play that way to start games and throughout games.’’
As recently as five games ago, Orlando ranked second in the NBA in third-quarter scoring, trailing only the World Champion Golden State Warriors for production in that all-important stretch to the start the second half. However, flat third quarters have been the culprits of the past two losses. On Wednesday, the Magic allowed the Timberwolves to make a staggering 12 of 19 shots and four of seven 3-pointers in the third quarter to break the game wide open.
``I think in that third quarter, honestly, we played soft defensively,’’ said Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who struggled through a five-of-13 shooting night, but still compiled 11 points, 14 rebounds and four assists. ``They scored I don’t know how many times on the first unit and the second unit came with the same thing. So, the third quarter was just soft. It wasn’t about Xs and Os or anything. It was just bad effort from us, us not playing hard enough and not being tough enough.’’
Unlike last Saturday’s galling 40-point loss to the Utah Jazz, the Magic refused to roll over this time. Orlando scored the first 14 points of the fourth and used a 19-1 burst to get within eight of the coasting T-Wolves. An Orlando defense that was throttled in the third made Minnesota miss its first 14 shots of the fourth quarter.
Ultimately, the Magic would get no closer than five points and it had to settle for yet another defeat. Orlando hasn’t won since a Nov. 10 victory in Phoenix against the rebuilding Suns.
``We have to play with urgency and like that game means something,’’ said Magic forward Evan Fournier, who made just six of 13 shots and one of four 3-pointers, but finished with 19 points. ``The losing streak is tough for our confidence obviously, but at some point you’ve got to say, `(Forget) it and let’s go get this (next) game. That’s the mindset we’ve got to have.’’
Aaron Gordon scored 26 points on 11 of 18 shooting, but he struggled checking Minnesota’s Taj Gibson (24 points) for a second consecutive season. Terrence Ross scored 22 points and hit two 3-pointers, but it wasn’t nearly enough as Fournier and Vucevic were uncharacteristically ineffective. Elfrid Payton had a double-double with 10 points and 13 assists, but he missed all three of his 3-pointers and failed to connect on five of his seven free throws.
Jimmy Butler scored 26 points for Minnesota, which shot 46 percent from the floor and got the free throw line 45 times (with 36 makes) against Orlando’s sagging defense. Jeff Teague added 22 points and 11 assists. Andrew Wiggins chipped in 20 points, while Karl-Anthony Towns contributed 18 points and 13 rebounds.
``They’re a talented team with a lot of different scorers, so credit them,’’ Gordon said. ``But we need to pick it up and tighten the screws.’’
Vogel talked before the game about what one victory could potentially do for the ailing Magic’s confidence, saying, ``No medicine like a road win. It’s a good opportunity for us.’’ However, that opportunity faded away because of the lack of focus and execution in the third quarter.
Still, Vogel said there are aspects of Wednesday’s game that Orlando can build upon going forward. The Magic outscored the T-Wolves 38-18 in the fourth period and they shot a solid 50.5 percent from the floor for the game while handing out 28 assists.
``We showed improvement tonight,’’ Vogel said adamantly. ``Our offense has been very erratic in the last few games, failing to find a rhythm, and we made progress on that end of the floor tonight.’’
Orlando came into the night having dropped the previous five games – the final three to Western Conference foes on the road and two at the Amway Center against Utah and Indiana. Sadly, that streak grew to a sixth straight loss on Wednesday because of the dismal third quarter. It was the second straight game in which a poor third quarter ruined any chances of success for the Magic. They were outscored 28-17 by the Pacers on Monday.
Wednesday’s game was the first of a four-game, seven-night road trip. The Magic stayed in frigid Minneapolis after Wednesday’s game and will fly to Boston on Thursday where they will celebrate Thanksgiving together at a team meal. The Magic will face the Celtics on Friday and play in Philadelphia on Saturday in the second night of a difficult back-to-back set of games. Following an off day on Sunday, the Magic close out their trip with a rematch against Indiana and standout guard Victor Oladipo.
Down three at the half, the Magic crumbled in the third period under a hail of open shots and turnovers. Minnesota outscored Orlando 41-18 in the third period by making 12 of 19 shots and four of seven 3-pointers. Meanwhile, the Magic kicked the ball away five times in the quarter, fueling the Timberwolves running game. And by the time veteran guard Jamal Crawford finished off a three-point play, Orlando found itself in a somewhat unbelievable 106-80 hole.
``We’ve just got to be tougher on defense coming out of halftime,’’ Gordon said. ``They were able to get to their spots and get to the (free throw) line and we just made it too easy for them coming out of the half. They took the momentum and it carried them over to a win.’’
The Magic trailed 65-62 at the half – a disconcerting fact considering that they made 15 of their first 23 shots and led by as much as eight points in the first quarter. Orlando scored 35 first-quarter points – the most against Minnesota all season – but it lost the lead before halftime.
Turnovers were a big culprit in Monday’s loss to Indiana – Orlando’s 22 turnovers led to 26 points – and they factored into Wednesday’s game as well. The Magic gave the ball away nine times in the first half, leading to 14 points that helped the Timberwolves storm into the lead.
``We played well offensively (early in the game), but defense was a problem all night,’’ Fournier said. ``We had a hard time controlling the rebounding and the hustle plays. Things like 50/50 balls and all of the stuff that matters, those made the difference and we didn’t do enough.’’
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