DETROIT – Wildly inconsistent all season, the Orlando Magic showed on Wednesday exactly why they find themselves sitting outside the playoff chase and a half-game closer to the equally erratic Detroit Pistons instead of being in possession of a feel-good three-game winning streak.
As good offensively early in the night as they have been all season, the Magic struggled on the defensive end and never was able to put much distance between themselves and the Pistons. Then, after more rebounding woes allowed Detroit to get the game to overtime, Orlando’s offensive woes hit hard in the extra period, leading to another frustration-filled loss.
Magic center Nikola Vucevic uncharacteristically missed a shot to win the game late in regulation and left a hook shot to tie short in OT and Orlando missed 10 of 12 shots in the extra period of a head-scratching 120-115 loss to the Pistons.
Orlando (19-25) fell to 0-3 on the season in overtime games after it was outscored 11-6 by the Pistons. Much like when they lost to Phoenix and went one of 10 in overtime in late December, the Magic made just two of 12 shots in the extra period on Wednesday. Terrence Ross, who had 24 points, drilled two 3-pointers for Orlando’s only offense in the extra period.
``Being on the road is no excuse,’’ said Ross, who made eight of 14 shots and had a season-best six 3-point shots. ``We’ve got to figure out a way to win that one.’’
Up 109-107 inside the final minute, Orlando let Detroit get the game tied because of its inability to keep center Andre Drummond off the glass. Drummond, who had 14 points, 22 rebounds and 11 offensive boards, gave Detroit two extra chances with his offensive rebounds and his put-back basket with 32.9 seconds remaining knotted the game at 109. Orlando protested the call, feeling that Reggie Jackson’s missed shot didn’t hit the rim and Drummond’s follow basket came after the shot clock had expired. However, replays showed otherwise.
``That was the game,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said of his team’s struggles in keeping Drummond off the glass. ``We’re up two and we get two stops and they get three offensive rebounds to tie it. The offensive rebounding hurt us in the game, but when we make two good defensive plays, we’ve got to get a rebound.’’
Vucevic, Orlando’s leading scorer and rebounder all season, had a chance to win the game late in regulation and a chance to tie it in overtime, but he failed both times. Vucevic missed a pick-and-pop jump shot with 22 seconds left in regulation and Orlando got another chance when Blake Griffin missed in the final seconds of regulation.
``It felt good, but it was just short,’’ Vucevic said of the mid-range shot that he missed late in regulation – from the same spot on the floor where he made a game-winner a month earlier in a defeat of Chicago. ``I made a couple on similar plays tonight. That was the play that we drew up and the shot we wanted, but I didn’t make it. I had opportunities in overtime as well and missed those, so I’ve got to come through next time. Those are my shots – even the hook shot (in overtime) with Reggie Bullock on me, I get it right where I wanted it, but it was short. I need to make those, and the team relies on me to make those.’’
In OT, the Pistons (19-24) outscored the Magic 11-6. Ross gave the Magic a brief hope when he made consecutive 3-point shots to put them up 115-113. However, Griffin, who finished with 30 points, had a hook shot and two free throws to put Detroit back ahead 117-115 lead with 2:38 left in the OT.
Orlando was playing for the first time since notching stirring home victories over Boston and Houston on consecutive nights over the weekend. In both games, the Magic withstood offensive onslaughts from superstars Kyrie Irving and James Harden and rallied late for come-from-behind victories. They won those games with their defense, only to be let down by that unit on Wednesday night. Detroit shot 47.7 percent in the game, had 32 points in both the second and third quarters and made four of eight shots in the OT.
``Man, I thought we really had this game pretty much all night,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who had 12 points and eight rebounds before fouling out in overtime. ``It’s definitely disappointing that we lost, but we’ll see them one more time.’’
After falling behind 117-115 in overtime, Orlando wouldn’t score the rest of the way as Evan Fournier (18 points) had a 3-pointer roll out, Gordon was stripped of the ball on a drive and D.J. Augustin (13 points and seven assists) missed a layup. Vucevic got himself in position for the short hook shot with 32 seconds to play, but it was off target.
``Listen, he’s not going to make every shot,’’ Clifford said of Vucevic’s misses. ``He’s made so many, so many big shots and he’s not going to make every one all year. … They’re a good defensive team and if you score 109 in regulation, if we defend the way we’re capable, we win the game. It’s got nothing to do with the offense or the shot-making.’’
Up as much as 11 points in the early going of the game, the Magic actually found themselves in a 97-86 hole with 10 minutes to play. Orlando got hot and tried pulling off yet another big comeback in the fourth quarter, going on an 18-8 run to get within one with 3:20 to play. Seconds later, Vucevic drove hard around Drummond for a thunderous dunk that tied it and Augustin converted a layup that gave the Magic a two-point edge with 1:51 to play.
It wouldn’t last, however, because of Orlando’s inability to keep Drummond off the offensive glass. His offensive rebounds and put-back basket to tie the game gave the Magic a flashback to their rebounding problems from early in the season.
The Magic and Pistons split the first two meetings of the season – both in Orlando. Detroit won 103-96 on Nov. 7 thanks to strong play from its bench, while Orlando won 109-107 on Dec. 30 when Fournier sank a buzzer-beating floater over Drummond at the Amway Center.
The winner of the season series could come into play when the playoffs roll around in mid-April as Orlando and Detroit figure to fight all season for one of the remaining playoff slots in the Eastern Conference. The two teams entered the night separated by just a half-game in the ninth and 10th spots in the East.
``We’re serious about being a playoff team,’’ said Detroit coach Dwane Casey, whose team hosts the Magic in the final meeting of the season on March 28. ``We’ve missed the playoffs here the last four or five years and this is the area where we’re looking at a (Magic) team that we’re in a dogfight with. How we come out on Wednesday night) will determine a lot about who we are. We’ve got to think like winners. Too many times, we make a mistake, drop our heads and drop our shoulders. Winners don’t do that.’’
In those first two games, Gordon did a solid job defensively on Griffin, twice holding him below his season scoring average and limiting him to 40.7 shooting. However, Gordon had little luck in slowing down Griffin on Wednesday and the 250-pound forward was able to get deeper post position and he also shoot free on several screen-and-roll plays.
The Magic will be off on Thursday before playing a third home/home back-to-back set of games of the season. Orlando hosts the much-improved Brooklyn Nets on Friday and the surging Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday. In two prior home/home back-to-backs, the Orlando swept the Lakers and Knicks and the Celtics and Rockets.
Up five after a first half in which they never trailed, the Magic hit a lull midway through the third and fell behind for the first time when former Orlando point guard Ish Smith drilled a 3-pointer. Unable to get many stops out of their defense, the Magic headed into the fourth period trailing 90-84 despite still making 55.6 percent of their shots.
``Tonight, I just don’t think our defense was at a level that it needed to be,’’ Vucevic said.
The Magic were focused and ready from the jump on Wednesday, making 15 of their first 20 shots for their hottest-shooting quarter of the season. They shot 67.7 percent in the first 24 minutes, never trailed and held a 63-58 lead at intermission. The 67.7 percent easily surpassed the previous high for a half (57.1 percent versus New York on Nov. 18) and the Magic set up their 27 field goals with 17 assists.
In the end, the fast start offensively would matter very little because of Orlando’s defensive woes. Vucevic, in particular, was frustrated that the Magic weren’t able to capitalize on their big wins over Boston and Houston and fell backward on Wednesday. That’s a hot-and-cold trend that has haunted Orlando all season, and one it must correct if it wants to seriously challenge for a playoff spot in mid-April.
``It’s happened a few times this season where we score the ball at a high rate early, but our defense doesn’t follow,’’ Vucevic said. ``It’s a tough loss. They made the plays in overtime and we didn’t. It was a tough battle all night, but this is tough.’’
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