ORLANDO – Unable to depend on their reserves and their starters’ minutes soaring because of that glaring issue, the Orlando Magic predictably hit a wall in overtime on Wednesday night and suffered a humbling loss to the nine-win Phoenix Suns.
Four starters and guard Terrence Ross were on the floor over the entirety of the extra period, and when that group missed its final nine shots, the Magic were forced to stomach a dispiriting 122-120 loss to Phoenix. While the inclination might be there to point blame at the lineup that struggled at the end of another forgettable night, the group of reserves that blew leads all game long was actually the culprits in Orlando’s fourth straight defeat.
``It’s the whole challenge,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said of his continued search to find a second unit that can be counted on nightly. ``Same thing tonight (as other nights). Part of the overtime (struggles) was that those (starter) guys are out there so much and so long, but it’s out of necessity.’’
Necessity because reserves Jerian Grant (a minus-13 over 11 minutes), Jonathon Simmons (minus-11 over 20 minutes), rookie Mo Bamba (minus-three over nearly 14 minutes) and Ross (minus-23 over 36 minutes) struggled mightily. That led to starters Aaron Gordon (11 points and nine rebounds), D.J. Augustin (27 points), Nikola Vucevic (22 points and 13 rebounds) and Evan Fournier (16 points and five assists) playing 42, 41, 39 and 35 minutes, respectively.
That heavy workload undoubtedly played a major role in Orlando (14-19) going one of 10 from the floor, including five misses on 3-point shots, and scoring just two points in the five-minute overtime. Phoenix (9-26) blew a four-point lead in the final 16.7 seconds of regulation and won despite making just two field goals in the extra period.
``We had some good looks that we missed,’’ said Vucevic, who made Orlando’s only shot in OT. ``We had some that maybe were a little quick. It’s hard in overtime if you go zero of nine. We did get stops a couple of times in a row, but we have to score as well.’’
Orlando’s starting five was largely responsible for building leads of 12 points (in the first quarter) and eight points (in the third quarter), but those advantages quickly disappeared each time when the squad broke the lineup and turned to the reserves. The early 12-point edge devolved into a nine-point halftime deficit. Meanwhile, the eight-point lead in the third quarter – compiled with the five starters on the floor – flipped around to a deficit as large as six when Clifford put Grant, Simmons and Ross around Vucevic and Gordon.
``Our job is to either gain or maintain a lead and when we’re not able to do that it’s pretty tough for our starters,’’ said Bamba, who had two points and five rebounds in the game and saw only 4 ½ minutes of playing time in the second half. ``Practice, compete in practice and just try to get better every day. I think we’ve taken a step offensively, but a step defensively backward.’’
Clifford said he’s tried for weeks to figure out various combinations where the squad staggers starters with the bench players to lessen the reliance on the second string. Following Wednesday’s choppy play, Clifford said he is basically starting from scratch in his pursuit for reserves that the team can count on nightly.
``We broke the lineup there in the first half and we lost the lead quickly,’’ Clifford said. ``We did it different, obviously, in the second half. The problem is that those (starter) guys can’t play minutes like this. We have eight (games) in the next 14 nights and we’re going to have to figure out ways to (juggle the starters and second unit).’’
Orlando was fortunate just to get to overtime and used three clutch free throws from Augustin with six-tenths of a second remaining to knot the score at 118. With the Magic down 116-112 with 16.7 seconds remaining, Ross hit a high-arching 3-pointer as he fell to the floor with 11 seconds to play. Then, after Phoenix standout Devin Booker pushed the lead back to three with two free throws, Augustin was hit by rookie forward Mikal Bridges as he attempted a corner 3-pointer. Augustin, who came into Wednesday 12thin the NBA in free throw percentage (88.6 percent), calmly sank all three free throws inside of the final second to force OT.
Inexplicably, Orlando went cold in the extra period. The Magic opened with Vucevic’s jumper, but they missed nine straight shots and were whistled for a 24-second violation in the extra period. Two of their shots in OT were blocked by Phoenix rookie center Deandre Ayton (eight points, 12 rebounds and three blocks). Fournier got off a 26-footer that could have won the game just before the final horn, but it was off target.
Said Fournier: ``I just ran to the ball and tried to get a shot up. I thought it was a pretty good look, to be honest. I thought it was in.’’
Orlando lost for a fourth straight time and for the seventh in the past nine games. The primary reason for the Magic’s defeat was the collapse of their much-improved defense as the Suns shot 50.5 percent from the floor, drilled 13 3-pointers and scored 50 points in the paint.
``We just made mistakes, started fouling, getting them to the free throw line and they got into a rhythm,’’ said Fournier, whose job it was to hound Phoenix’s Booker all game. ``Honestly, they made two tough shots – back-to-back threes (at the end of the first quarter) – to cut it from 12 (points) to six and just like that it’s a different ball game.’’
Booker hit a game-tying 3-pointer with a minute to play in regulation, converted a steal into a go-ahead dunk and scored 35 points. T.J. Warren had 24 points – four of them coming in overtime for Phoenix’s only points. Because the Magic had just one basket, the four points proved to be enough for the win.
Ross, Orlando’s best reserve all season, has slipped into a major shooting funk of late. He had 18 points on Wednesday, but he made just six of 14 shots. In the OT, he missed all four of his shots – three of them from 3-point range. He had a corner 3-pointer carom back to him off the side of the backboard and 90 seconds into the extra period he gambled on a knock-out 3-pointer in transition that was off the mark.
In his last three games, Ross has made just 10 of 36 shots and only five of 14 3-pointers.
Orlando is now in the throes of a four-game skid that matches the losing streak from early in the season when it started 2-6. The Magic responded to that four-game skid by beating San Antonio and ripping off a 7-2 run. On Friday, they will get a chance to break the streak against another playoff power – the Toronto Raptors.
Shooting woes have been the culprit of late as the Magic came into Wednesday shooting a dismal 39.3 percent over the previous seven games. They shot 45.8 percent with 14 3-pointers on Wednesday, but it didn’t matter because of the defensive woes and lack of support from a bench that was outscored 46-33.
The Magic beat the Suns 99-85 on Nov. 30. However, their four-game winning streak against Phoenix ended on Wednesday.
Another loss left Clifford searching for answers to the problems defensively and with the bench again.
``We don’t protect the basket nearly as well and our pick-and-roll defense is the bigger problem,’’ the first-year Magic coach said. ``Dribble-hand-offs and pick-and-roll defense and that’s the way (the Suns) got going.
``We’ve done it (juggling the starters and the reserves), but I’ve got to figure out a way,’’ Clifford continued. ``It’s just tougher in a stretch like this where (bench) guys have got to play some minutes. You can’t just throw people out there that don’t play together in practice or haven’t in the games. A good chunk of my day every day is that – `how can we play? how can we be matched up?’ But those (reserves) have got to play their minutes. These (starters) can’t play 42 and 40 minutes. It’s just not going to work over these next two weeks.’’
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