Postgame Report: Magic Fall to Celtics in Battle Between Shorthanded Teams

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Forced to play most of the season without several key pieces because of an unrelenting rash of injuries, the Orlando Magic have routinely had to shuffle their lineups and rely on players in completely different positions.

On Friday, the Magic got a look at another short-handed, injury-ravaged team forced to do that very same thing. Only the Boston Celtics got much more offensive production from their cast of lightly regarded players filling in for injured starters Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Enes Kanter to down an offensively frustrated Magic squad.

Orlando led by as much as 16 points in the first half, but it came unglued offensively in the third quarter and never got back on track in a second half where it shot just 32.6 percent and mustered only 41 points in a frustration-filled 109-98 loss to the Celtics.

``We just missed a lot of good looks and obviously I missed a lot of good looks in the whole game,’’ said Magic all-star center Nikola Vucevic, who struggled through a 17-point, 12-rebound night versus a Boston defense that was more physical. ``Going six-for-18 is not going to help our team much. We had some solid looks, but we didn’t make them, and we have to make them. I have to make them and be more efficient offensively.’’

Playing before a sellout crowd of 18,846 fans, Orlando (21-25) lost its second straight home game to drop to 13-10 at the Amway Center on the season. Boston (30-14) won despite being without its second, third and sixth-leading scorers in Tatum, Brown and Kanter. The Magic were outscored 56-41 in the second half and the Celtics turned Orlando’s 14 turnovers into 19 points in the game.

``At the end of the day, if you’re going to beat that team, you’re going to have to play through contact, not turn the ball over and have clean possessions,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``It takes offensive energy and force and we had none of that.’’

Kemba Walker, who came into the night having averaged 20.9 points in 31 games against Orlando in his career, scored 37 points and made six 3-pointers. He scored 17 of those points over the final 8 minutes of the second quarter as the Celtics cut a deficit that grew to as much as 16 in the early going to four by halftime.

``I thought the main problem tonight was Kemba, once again,’’ fumed Magic guard Evan Fournier. ``(Magic fans) know how over the last few years he’s been just killing us. He’s like a little mouse that you can’t catch. He’s extremely clever with the ball and he can really shoot. Tough coverage and that’s how they got going. Kemba gave them confidence, and on the defensive end they played harder trying to deny us. One thing led to another and that’s it.’’

Fournier scored 30 points and hit five 3-pointers, but he didn’t have nearly enough help on a night when Vucevic (six-of-18 shooting overall and two-of-seven accuracy from 3-point range) and standout reserve Terrence Ross (eight points on two of 12 shooting from 3-point range) were quiet for long stretches. Also, Orlando got little production from Aaron Gordon (12 points on four-of-11 shooting) and Markelle Fultz (six points on three-of-10 shooting) to accentuate the offensive struggles.

For the game, Orlando shot just 40 percent from the floor and made only 12 of 37 3-pointers. It was even worse in a second half when the Magic went 14 of 43 overall and five of 23 from 3-point range.

``Even when we have everybody, we don’t have a ton of offensive firepower,’’ Clifford said of an Orlando offense that came into the night 29thin the NBA in scoring, 27thin shooting and 26thin 3-point accuracy. ``And with (reserve guard) D.J. (Augustin) out, that’s one of the things that we miss because he’s the guy that we play through on the second unit.’’

Like Clifford, Vucevic pointed to the recent loss of Augustin (bone irritation in his left knee) as one of the reasons for his recent struggles in Orlando’s last two losses. Last season, when he became an all-star for the first time in his career, Vucevic relied heavily on the pick-and-roll playmaking of the 6-foot Augustin to set him up for open looks when he was in rhythm. A similar sort of chemistry has yet to develop between Vucevic and the 21-year-old Fultz.

``Obviously, D.J. is a big part of what we do, and he helps our team in many ways, especially with that second unit,’’ Vucevic said. ``With his ability, he’s very good in the pick-and-roll and if (defenders) don’t’ hold with him he hits that shot. He creates a lot for everybody. We’re missing that part. I don’t think it’s putting more pressure on one guy. When one guy is out, somebody else steps in and we keep playing the same way. But missing a player like that, you’re always going to miss them.’’

Boston, who also got 22 points from Gordon Hayward, 16 from Daniel Theis and nine from rookie Grant Williams, shot 46.5 percent and made 14 3-point shots. The Celtics not only figured out ways to get Walker open when Orlando double-teamed him, but they gave Orlando fits with their zone defense in the third quarter.

Fumed Clifford, who coached Walker for five seasons in Charlotte from 2013-18: ``Kemba got going. The single coverage wasn’t working and then we went to the double team and he just crushed it and it was worse. He dribbled around us, he dribbled through us and it led to open threes for everybody else, plus he got fouled and he shot layups. So, that’s what makes it hard.’’

Boston was without Brown (ankle sprain), Tatum (groin strain) and Kanter (hip contusion). That forced the Celtics to start Marcus Smart (seven points, seven rebounds, six assists, a steal and a block) and Williams, who buried three 3-pointers.

Without question, the Magic know what it’s like to play less than full strength as they have been forced to deal with a variety of injuries all season. On Friday, Orlando was once again without forwards Jonathan Isaac (left knee sprain and bone bruise) and Al-Farouq Aminu (right knee surgery) and Augustin (expected to miss another 2-3 weeks).

Despite all their struggles, the Magic were within 103-98 with 2:29 to play. But that’s when Vucevic misfired on a 3-point shot and Fournier couldn’t convert. When Theis faked a pass, drove down the heart of the lane and rammed in a dunk with 1:44 to play, it put the Celtics up by seven and sent fans scurrying for the exits.

``I have to figure it out,’’ said Vucevic, who has made 16 of 38 shots and just five of 14 3-point shots in Orlando’s last two losses. ``All season long my offense and my shooting have been a little bit up and down, I haven’t been as efficient as I’ve been my whole career and I have to figure it out. I have to work through it, fight through it and that’s all I can do. It’s frustrating because if I was more efficient in some games, we’d have had a much better chance if I make some of the looks that I had. I just have to figure it out.’’

Friday’s game was the second of a three-game home stand. Orlando hosts Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the star-studded Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday at the Amway Center (tip time: 6 p.m.). Including the loss in Los Angeles last week, the Magic have dropped their last 12 games to the Clippers.

The Magic were playing for the first time since Wednesday when they lost 120-114 to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who torched Orlando for 60.5 percent shooting. A review of the game footage told Clifford that the root of the problem was the inability to contain the ball.

On Friday, the issue was offense – even though the that certainly wasn’t the case in the early going of the game when the Magic built a seemingly safe 42-28 lead with 8:46 left in the first half.

However, that’s when Walker went to work and scored 17 points over the final 8 minutes of the first half. At one point in the second quarter, Walker had scored 25 of Boston’s first 43 points. By halftime, Walker already sat at 27 points after he made 10 of his first 16 shots and four of eight 3-pointers. And, by then, Orlando’s lead was down to 57-53.

``Defensive lapses and Kemba got it going,’’ Ross said of the poor stretch late in the first half. (Walker) is really quick, he has a great handle and he can really shoot.’’

The Magic saw the game slip away from them in a forgettable third quarter. Orlando got outscored 29-20 in the third period – largely because of its seven-of-25 shooting and one-of-11 3-point accuracy against Boston’s zone defense – and fell behind 82-77 by the start of the fourth period.

So often their hero with his dynamic versatility on the offensive end of the floor, Vucevic was at the heart of the shooting struggles in the third period and he seemed to lose his confidence during a stretch that featured three straight misses and an unsightly airball. Vucevic was just three of eight from the floor in the third period, allowing Boston to zip into the lead.

Vucevic knows that if the Magic are going to score enough to win on a nightly basis, he is going to have to play better on that end of the floor.

``I got really good looks – inside and outside – looks that throughout my whole career I’ve been making and I didn’t (on Friday),’’ Vucevic said. ``It’s very frustrating. You get those looks, you want to knock them down because your team relies on you. It’s part of it and I have to fight through it. Maybe I just have to take my time or not think as much and let it go. I have to watch film and see what’s going on.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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