Postgame Report: Magic vs. Rockets (11/4/15)

By John Denton
Nov. 4, 2015

HOUSTON – First, the Orlando Magic saw their chances of this being a much-improved season flash before their eyes when they lost standout center Nikola Vucevic to a scary knee sprain.

After getting word that Vucevic’s injury likely isn’t serious, the Magic then suffered a loss that proved to be just as painful as an aching knee.

The Magic played some of their most inspired basketball of this young season, battling through Vucevic’s collapse to the floor by riding the clutch play of guard Evan Fournier and the jaw-dropping athleticism of second-year forward Aaron Gordon throughout. However, a Magic team playing for a second time in as many nights wore down in the extra period and couldn’t make the shots that they needed late in a crushing 119-114 overtime loss to the powerful Houston Rockets.

Orlando’s hopes of pulling off the victory ended with two seconds left in overtime when it couldn’t get the ball in bounds to Fournier, the go-to guy all game with his 29 points on Wednesday and 59 points over a two-night span. The Magic had to settle for a 3-point heave from reserve guard Shabazz Napier and it was offline.

``We knew they were going to switch (defensively) there and frankly we’ve been working on so many other things that our late-game execution just isn’t that great,’’ Magic coach Scott Skiles said. ``We still got a decent look from Shabazz. It’s almost possible in the NBA to get a look for a guy from three when everybody knows that’s who you want to go to.’’

For Orlando (1-4), it was another heartbreaking defeat. Already this season, the Magic fell against Washington when they blew a five-point lead with 90 seconds to play in the season-opener. Also, they stumbled in the fourth quarter of 139-136 nail-biting loss in double-overtime to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The youthful Magic showed a distinct toughness throughout this game against the Rockets – Western Conference Finalists last season – but they still came up short against another foe because of hit-and-miss late-game execution.

``It’s tough, man. We missed Vooch at the end of the game, but I think we played hard tonight, especially on the back-to-back (set of games) with great effort,’’ Fournier said. ``We just came up short.’’

Houston, one of the NBA’s biggest disappointment teams in the NBA so far, improved to 2-3. The Rockets outscored the Magic 9-4 in the extra period. Orlando couldn’t hold a 106-103 lead over the final 3:58 of regulation and it hit just 2 of 9 shots in the OT.

``It’s tough, but I think we’re still showing progress and are still improving,’’ said Gordon, who had a career-best 19 points and eight rebounds. ``I think with a game like that we need to come down and really close it out. That’s something that we really need to work on – closing games out like that.’’

Fournier, who scored a career-best 30 points on Tuesday in New Orleans, came up huge in the final seconds of regulation to help the Magic get the game tied for an 18th time in the game. He beat Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard off the dribble, getting to the rim and drawing the foul on James Harden. Fournier then calmly drilled two free throws with 1.1 seconds remaining to knot the game at 110.

``I should have made the layup, too,’’ fumed Fournier, who made 11 of 21 shots and three of eight 3-pointers. In addition to his 29 points, he grabbed six rebounds and handed out four assists in 46 minutes.

Orlando received a major scare midway through the third quarter when Vucevic went down on the floor clutching at his right knee. While making a move in the lane, Vucevic appeared to have hyper-extended his knee, leading to him fumbling the ball away and crashing to the floor. The official diagnosis after the game was a knee sprain.

Vucevic, who came into the game second on the team in scoring (18.3) and first in rebounding (9.5) and blocked shots (2.75), walked back to the Orlando bench on his own power. After sitting there for a couple of minutes, the 7-footer eventually hobbled back to the Magic dressing room. Vucevic, who will have a MRI on Thursday to determine the severity of his injury, finished with six points and two rebounds in 16 minutes.

``I’m pretty sure that it’s not too serious and it will just be a sprained knee,’’ Vucevic said in the Magic locker room after the game. ``Obviously, the knee needs to calm down and I want to get in and get a MRI and talk to the doctor and get a timetable and see where I am. I just want to make sure that I can get a good timetable and that I follow it accordingly.

``When I was laying on the floor it was pretty painful, but I don’t know how long I was down there (on the floor), but the knee strengthened and I felt much better,’’ Vucevic said. ``The doctor felt there was good strength in the knee and it was pretty stable, but we’ll see (on Thursday) after we get the MRI and know more. So far, I’ve gotten pretty positive feedback (by putting weight on the leg).’’

Gordon played the best game of his two seasons in the NBA by hustling his way to positive plays all night. The 20-year-old forward had three straight baskets – all on dunks – to keep the Magic in position for the win. He just wishes that Orlando could have found a way to close it out with a victory.

``We’ve just got to be more disciplined. That’s what it comes down to,’’ Gordon said. ``We get a little discombobulated when we speed up or the game gets tight, so we just have to stay disciplined, grow and mature in that area (late in games).’’

Magic guard Victor Oladipo had 18 points and seven rebounds, while Tobias Harris scored 11 of his 16 points in the first half.

Houston center Dwight Howard hurt his former team all night with 23 points and 14 rebounds. All-NBA guard James Harden, who has struggled terribly with his shot so far, made just six of 22 shots but still scored 28 points because of a 14-0f-17 night from the free throw line. Trevor Ariza (19 points and four 3-pointers), Ty Lawson (16 points and eight assists) and Marcus Thornton (18 points) also did damage to the Magic.

Yet again, another foe made more free throws (24) than the Magic attempted (19). Orlando was outscored 24-15 from the free throw line – an ongoing problem from the past three seasons.

Orlando was playing for a second time in as many nights. The Magic whipped the New Orleans Pelicans and superstar forward Anthony Davis 103-94 on Tuesday with some stellar play on both ends of the floor.

The Magic are in one of their toughest stretches of the schedule of the season. After playing on Tuesday in New Orleans and Wednesday in Houston, Orlando will be off on Thursday before hosting Toronto on Friday and playing in Philadelphia on Saturday.

It is the Magic’s only stretch of four games in five nights – something that the NBA has tried eliminate from the schedule this season. Whereas NBA teams had 69 instances of four games in five nights last season, there are only 27 such occurrences this season.

Howard, the Magic’s all-time leader in points (11,435), rebounds (8,072), blocked shots (1,344) and minutes played (22,471) while playing for the franchise from 2004-12, said on Wednesday morning that he was happy with how the Magic have rebuilt their roster. Howard, who played for Orlando from 2004-12, admitted that it’s been difficult to see how the Magic have struggled after he worked to make them championship contenders. Howard said brighter days are ahead for the Magic because of the solid base of talent that the team has assembled.

``They’ve got a lot of young guys now who can really play the game and they’re only going to get better. I’m happy for them that they’re coming back,’’ Howard said. ``Young guys like (Nikola) Vucevic, (Victor) Oladipo and (Evan) Fournier – they’ve got a lot of guys who can really play basketball. It’s nice to see them coming back.’’

An Orlando team that struggled defensively in a 68-point first half responded well to seeing Vucevic go down. The Magic ripped off an impressive 11-1 spurt late in the third quarter to pull even with the Rockets at 81. Fournier had seven points in the run and Oladipo’s nifty reverse layup sent the Rockets into a timeout. That run allowed Orlando to be within 90-88 by the start of the fourth quarter.

Jason Smith scored eight points and Dewayne Dedmon had four points, seven rebounds and two blocks before fouling out in overtime.

``Vooch is an incredible player and I don’t know what happened to him, but to see him go down like that, it really brought us together,’’ Gordon said. ``We have a lot of talent on this team and anytime a player goes down we’re more than capable of having another player step in.’’

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