By John Denton Feb. 22, 2018
ORLANDO – Neither the Orlando Magic nor the New York Knicks had a representative playing in last weekend’s NBA All-Star Game, yet Thursday’s game resembled an all-star game much of the night what with the way the two teams often scored at will and only occasionally offered up stout defense.
Buoyed by the returns of starters Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon from long injury layoffs, Orlando did as it wanted on the offensive end early in the game, and a couple of times seemed to be on the verge of blowing out a New York Knicks team without standout forward Kristaps Porzingis.
Eventually, however, the Magic’s offense ground to a crawl and when their defense not only didn’t improve, but worsened, it paved the way for yet another frustration-filled loss at the Amway Center.
Up 11 in the early minutes of the second half, Orlando got repeatedly shelled over the final 10 minutes of the third quarter and it had few answers defensively in the fourth, resulting in a head-scratching 120-113 loss to the Knicks.
``It seemed like they were playing harder than us and the momentum shifted, and we couldn’t ever get it under control,’’ said Gordon, who struggled through a night where he had nine points, five assists and five rebounds in 24 minutes. ``That’s a bad one to let go.’’
Orlando (18-40) was playing its first game following the break for the NBA All-Star game, but many of the problems were similar to ones that have haunted it all season. New York (24-36) outscored Orlando 28-13 over the final 10 minutes of the third period and 27-24 in the fourth quarter. In ending an eight-game losing streak that stretched back to Jan. 30, the Knicks shot 48.9 percent from the floor and held a 12-0 edge in second-chance points in the second half.
``It’s kind of just fool’s gold when you start that hot and you’re not going to shoot that high the whole game and you need your defense to rely on and it let us down tonight,’’ said Magic guard Shelvin Mack, who had eight points and four assists off the bench. ``It’s very disappointing.’’
Magic coach Frank Vogel, who talked in the past two days about the team working to better its defense over the final eight weeks of the season, echoed the comments. Orlando played well enough to win – it shot 51.8 percent from the floor, connected on 11 3-pointers and had five players score in double figures – but the defensive problems were far too many to overcome.
``That’s been one of our problems … when we have good offensive nights -- in the first half we were shooting 61 percent with 18 assists – but for whatever reason we don’t carry that over onto the defensive end and build the lead up,’’ Vogel said. ``We let them hang around. And when they bench came in with great energy, wanting to end an eight-game losing streak, that’s how they came out in the second half.’’
Orlando got 25 points from Evan Fournier, 19 points from Vucevic and 15 points from Mario Hezonja, yet it never could muster enough defense against a Knicks team that shot 48.5 percent for the game.
``We definitely did a good job offensively in the first half, but defensively we didn’t get the stops all game long,’’ said Fournier, who made nine of 14 shots and three of six 3-point shots. ``We just stopped executing in the fourth offensively and defensively and that’s how we lost the game.’’
Trey Burke, who has a game-winner against Orlando to his credit when he played for the Utah Jazz, scored a season-best 26 points and handed out six assists. New York traded for Emmanuel Mudiay (eight points) earlier in the month and drafted Frank Ntilikina (seven points) last spring, but Burke was the Knicks’ best point guard on Thursday. He made 12 of his 22 shots and connected on two 3-pointers against Orlando’s defense.
Tim Hardaway Jr. added 23 points and six assists, while former Magic center Kyle O’Quinn scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds for New York.
Vucevic, the longest-tenured Magic player on the roster, was back playing for the first time since fracturing a bone in his left hand on Dec. 23. Gordon, the Magic’s leading-scorer on the season, missed the nine games prior to the break for the NBA All-Star Game because of a strained hip flexor muscle. Both players returned to the starting lineup on Thursday, bumping Bismack Biyombo and Hezonja to the second unit.
Vucevic played well throughout, making eight of 11 shots and connecting on two of his 3-point tries. Gordon, however, looked tentative and unable to hit the cracks he usually finds on his drives to the rim. Gordon even missed a dunk in the game and admitted afterward that he’s a long way away from where he wants to be as a player. He made just three of nine shots and turned the ball over three times.
``Out of sorts, out of rhythm and out of shape,’’ Gordon said of his performance. ``It’s going to take some time and a couple of days to get my shape back. One thing I pride myself on is having a motor, but it wasn’t there for me tonight. I’ve got to get my motor back.’’
Orlando came into Thursday having beaten the Knicks twice already this season, but those two wins came while Porzingis was out with minor elbow and ankle injuries. Porzingis has since been lost for the season – and likely a big chunk of next season – because of a torn ACL. The Knicks didn’t miss the big man one bit on Thursday.
Orlando will be back on the practice court on Friday before departing for Philadelphia where it will face the 76ers on Saturday. That game is the start of a two-game road trip as the Magic will play the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Monday. Orlando will be back at the Amway Center on Wednesday to face the Toronto Raptors.
The Magic opened the game by making 10 of their first 11 shots – and five straight 3-pointers – and shot 61 percent in the first half but led just 69-63 at intermission because of defensive issues. Orlando’s 69 points in the first half were one point short of the season-best 70 that it scored on Jan. 27 in Indiana. The Magic drilled six of their first nine 3-pointers and used 18 assists to set up their 25 field goals in the first half.
As it turns out, that hot start offensively only masked the problems that the team was having defensively in stopping Burke, Hardaway Jr. and O’Quinn.
Orlando extended its lead to 76-65 early in the third period and seemed to be on the verge of running away from the Knicks. However, New York ripped off a 28-13 burst over the final 10 minutes of the third quarter to grab a 93-89 advantage heading into the final period.
So efficient early in the game, the Magic kicked the ball away six times in the third to help jump-start New York’s offense.
In the fourth, things only got uglier for the Magic when they had few answers on the defensive end and the offense devolved into several sloppy, one-on-one possessions. Once up as much as 11 points, Orlando would fall into a hole as large as 12 points in the final quarter and never recover.
``Early on, the ball was moving around, we were putting it through the basket and we were able to get away with some defensive lapses,’’ Gordon said. ``But once we started missing, those lapses showed a little more.’’
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