Staying Poised Late in Tight Games Crucial for Magic

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

ORLANDO – Late Sunday, as Aaron Gordon adjusted the ice pack wrapped around his lower back and struggled to rise from his locker room chair, the grimacing Orlando Magic forward was in obvious pain.

That pain, however, paled in comparison to the pain that Gordon and the Magic felt after squandering an opportunity to get a much-needed victory and climb in the Eastern Conference standings.

Orlando came into Sunday night knowing that it had a chance to move into a tie with rival Miami for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference after the Heat lost earlier in the day. The Magic looked poised to do just that after overcoming a poor start, getting big contributions from several reserves and storming to its largest lead of the night with 3:06 to play.

However, things went very wrong for the Magic over much of the fourth quarter, ruining what could have been a solid win. Orlando didn’t have a field goal over the final 6:18 in Memphis and they could only look on helplessly as the Grizzlies strung together a 17-2 closing run that resulted in a 107-95 defeat.

Afterward, Gordon struggled to remember when exactly in the first half he was hit by a stray elbow in the ribs. And he struggled to move without pain. But he left no doubt about his availability going forward with the Magic in need of all the help they can get now at this critical juncture in the season.

``I must have taken an elbow or something and then tweaked it in my low ribs and right side,’’ said Gordon, who finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and six assists despite 1:39 of the fourth period because of the pain in his side. ``It’s hard to breathe and it’s hard to decelerate, but I’m good.

``I’m in a little bit of pain right now and I’ll be sore for a couple of days, but it’s something that I’m going to have to deal with here,’’ Gordon added. ``I know my team needs me, so I’m going to play through (the injury) and I’ll be all right.’’

Gordon and the Magic (31-37) will have two days to try and recover from what was one of the most frustrating and damaging losses of the season. It was the fourth time since the break for the NBA All-Star Game that they have dropped winnable games against foes with losing records, but this one cut especially deep considering the late lead.

Orlando is in a stretch where it is playing seven straight games against teams with losing records. The Magic, winners over Dallas on Friday, next play in Washington (Wednesday) and then at home against Cleveland (Thursday), Atlanta (March 17), New Orleans (March 20) and Memphis again (March 22).

With just 14 games remaining in the regular season, the upcoming stretch is one that Orlando will likely have to dominate in order to stay in the playoff chase. To accomplish that, the Magic must first try and rid any lingering resentment from Sunday’s offensive and defensive fourth-quarter meltdown.

``We definitely have to get back from this because we feel like we’ve given away a couple of games here – several games, actually,’’ Gordon said. ``We’ve just got to play in a way that we know we can play through April and May (for the playoffs).’’

At issue for the Magic is the frequency with which they find themselves in ``clutch’’ or ``close’’ games – always a tricky proposition for NBA teams. The NBA defines ``clutch’’ games as ones that are within five points (plus or minus) in the final five minutes of play. The Magic are tied for the most ``clutch games’’ in the NBA (coincidentally with Memphis) at 41, but they have compiled just a 17-24 record in those games. Those 24 losses in ``clutch games’’ are tied for 28th in the NBA.

Part of the reason for being in so many close games is the erratic nature of the Magic’s play in fourth quarters. Orlando is tied for second in the NBA in wins when trailing at the start of the fourth quarter with eight. A ninth such win could have come on Sunday in Memphis had Orlando been able to hang onto its seven-point spread in the final three minutes. Additionally, Orlando is tied for third in the NBA in losses after taking the lead into the fourth quarter (eight).

Despite their late lead on Sunday, the Magic actually struggled from start to finish in Memphis, a place where they have won just three times in franchise history. They missed their first seven shots of the game and the final eight, and the choppiness in between was a struggle as well.

Orlando’s frustration bubbled over a couple of times as veteran shooting guard Evan Fournier and head coach Steve Clifford were ejected at different points in the second half. Fournier was tossed for arguing a non-call early in the third quarter, while Clifford got ejected with four seconds remaining when he fumed over his shooting guard not being available late in the loss.

Afterward, Clifford was as upset about how his team got burned on the defensive end of the floor as he was about the ejections of himself and Fournier.
``The biggest mistake was when (Joakim) Noah has the ball, they’re going to be cutting. We talked about it and worked on it (Saturday in practice) and talked about it in the hotel (on Sunday morning) and we gave up a huge backdoor play for an and-on for (Mike) Conley.’’ Clifford said of a possession that allowed the Grizzlies to cut a seven-point deficit to four with 2:52 to play. ``So, it goes from three possessions to two (for the lead). Then, the (Delon) Wright drive (with 1:11 to play), you’ve got to let him lay that ball in and angle (the rim attack). Those were the two big plays.’’

If the Magic want to be on the opposite side of those big, game-changing plays, they must find ways to avoid playing in so many close games. When in possession of leads, the Magic must stay focused in order to potentially extend those advantages. However, when they slip up late and let opponents back in games, they are susceptible to the fickle fate of close games.

``We just need to execute better and make some shots,’’ Vucevic said of his team’s late struggles on Sunday. ``Defensively, we gave up some and-ones and those hurt, especially in close games. And we fouled them a couple of times to get to the free throw line. A few mistakes, and those will hurt you in a close game.’’

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