Postgame Report: Magic Fall Short at Madison Square Garden

by John Denton

NEW YORK – As has been the case all season, the Orlando Magic struggled mightily when playing on the second night of a back-to-back set of games. Only this time it was more because of a lack of precision, fuzzy focus and a shaky closing stretch than it was because of energy issues.

Regardless the reasons, the Magic were left with a galling 105-103 loss to the New York Knicks on Thursday at Madison Square Garden when their suddenly shaky defense and equally sketchy ball handling resulted in them squandering a 10-point lead over the final 9 minutes of the game. That troubling sequence left the Magic at 1-8 this season when playing on the second night of a back-to-back set of games.

The game ended with a mini-controversy as Magic head coach Steve Clifford tried unsuccessfully to get a time out in the closing seconds. When Magic failed to get that timeout, they ultimately turned the ball over for a 21sttime on the night to seal their fate.

``We didn’t lose because of that last play; we lost because we had (21) turnovers and because we couldn’t get stops,’’ said Magic center Nikola Vucevic, whose team came into Thursday first in the NBA in fewest turnovers per game (12). ``The (21) turnovers against any team, especially on the road, it’s going to be very, very difficult, especially for a team like us that’s already playing for minimal room for error (because of injuries). Having (21) turnovers is way too many. Usually we’re pretty good with the ball, but we’ve been a little too careless the last two games.’’

New York (16-36) wiped out a 90-80 lead by Orlando (22-30) with a game-turning 25-8 run that featured three 3-pointers by Wayne Ellington and a fourth one by former Orlando guard Elfrid Payton that knotted the game at 96. The Magic had plenty of trouble controlling Payton, who finished with 15 points, nine assists, eight steals and four rebounds for New York.

``We lost the game because we came out sluggish, we gave them too many easy buckets and we weren’t guarding one-on-one and they made plays with their shooting,’’ Magic guard Michael Carter-Williams fumed.

Orlando had one last chance to knot the score in the final seconds, but it never got off a shot as Evan Fournier stumbled and turned the ball with four-tenths of a second remaining. If his team got a stop and the rebound, Clifford wanted the Magic to push the pace and probe for an easy basket, but then call a time out if the play bogged down. Much like earlier this season in a last-minute loss in Dallas, Clifford furiously motioned for a time out, but never got one for the officiating crew.

``The last play is totally on me,’’ said Clifford, whose team went into its final defensive stand with 35 seconds on the clock – 11 more than was on the 24-second shot clock for the Knicks. ``To me, with that (11-second) differential … and we were getting good looks in transition (all game). In the huddle, I told them as soon as it gets discombobulated or whatever, call a time out. I just saw it in there (postgame on replay in the locker room) and there’s like 4.3 or 4.4 (seconds remaining when he’s signaling for a time out).

``I understand they’re reffing the game, but, to me, they changed the rule two years ago so that the coach can’t run on the floor like we used to,’’ Clifford continued. ``It used to be that we’d go right out to half court – and I understand it looks bad, and it’s a technical. They did a good job officiating the game, but to me (the referees) have to be organized, too. Players have to have awareness, coaches have to have awareness and that’s not OK.’’

Payton, who played in Orlando for 3 ½ seasons from 2014-18, scooped up the loose ball when Fournier fell for his seventh steal of the game. The Magic’s 21 turnovers came a night after they kicked the ball away 17 times a night earlier in a loss in Boston.

``I was trying to get a look. There’s not much to say, but there really wasn’t any open looks,’’ said Fournier, who finished with 16 points, two 3-pointers and three turnovers. ``They did a good job running back (on defense). I haven’t watched the play yet, but from my point of view I should have just shot a three. I was just trying to get a look, but I couldn’t.’’

Vucevic scored 25 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots, but he also had four turnovers. Markelle Fultz had 16 points in the first game he played at Madison Square Garden, but he turned the ball over five times. Aaron Gordon missed his first five shots of the game, but he finished seven of 14 with two 3-pointers. He ended up with 16 points for an Orlando team that shot 45.3 percent from the floor.

Julius Randle scored 22 points for the Knicks, who outscored the Magic 29-20 in the fourth quarter. The Knicks have won three games in a row and are 12-18 under interim coach Mike Miller.

Earlier in the day, the Magic acquired forward James Ennis III from the Philadelphia 76ers just prior to the NBA’s trade deadline in a move designed to add more perimeter shooting and scoring punch to an offense that has lagged for weeks.

The 6-foot-6, 215-pound Ennis III is a career 35.6 percent shooter from 3-point range in five NBA seasons. The Magic will be the seventh NBA team that the 29-year-old Ennis III has played for since being the 50thpick of the 2013 NBA Draft out of Long Beach State (Calif.). In his career, Ennis III has averaged 6.4 points and 3.2 assists with his best extended stretch coming in the 2018-19 season when he averaged 7.4 points on 36.7 percent 3-point shooting in 40 games with the Houston Rockets.

``Experienced guy, terrific competitor, he’s played in playoff series and he’s got good versatility, so I think he’ll fit in well,’’ said Clifford of Ennis, who he will meet with on Friday in Orlando. ``(Defense), to me, is the thing that really stands out because he’s a really good competitor. He has the quickness and length to defend multiple positions, which is obviously a big help for any team.’’

The perpetually rebuilding Knicks were also active at the trade deadline. They traded forward Marcus Morris to the Los Angeles Clippers in a three-team deal that got them former Magic forward Moe Harkless and a 2020 first-round pick in return.

The Magic were playing less than 24 hours after losing 116-100 in Boston on Wednesday. The Magic won the first game of the three-game trip in Charlotte before falling to the Celtics on Wednesday. The late collapse on Thursday – caused primarily by four late turnovers and defensive gaffes that allowed Ellington (12 points and four 3-pointers) to get free – prevented the Magic from having a 2-1 road trip.

Orlando dropped to 17-7 on the season against teams with losing records. Shorthanded and playing with a small margin for error because of an unrelenting rash of injuries, the Magic are just 4-23 against teams with winning records.

``At one point, we were up 10 and (Ellington) hit (a 3-pointer) at the buzzer and he hit another from the corner and those give (the Knicks) life,’’ Vucevic admitted. ``Then, he hit another coming off a pin-down (screen). We know that he can do that because he’s been doing that with Miami a lot and with New York as well. He made shots at big moments and that gave them life.’’

Orlando will be back at the Amway Center on Saturday to take on reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks. The game will feature a special start time of 5 p.m. so that it can be televised in prime time in Europe, Africa and several Middle Eastern countries.

Slow starters following a sluggish and sloppy first half, the Magic finally came alive in the third period to take control of the game. Orlando hit 13 of 22 shots and eight of 10 free throws in the third period to take an 83-76 lead into the fourth. That seemed to bode well for the Magic considering that they came into the night at 19-1 when leading after three periods.

Vucevic, who has a long history of playing well in New York, scored 10 points by making four of his five field goals in the third period.

The Magic were mostly a mess on both ends of the floor in the first half and trailed 54-47 at intermission. Not only did Orlando give 34 points in the paint in the first 24 minutes, it also turned the ball over 12 times – leading to 13 Knicks’ points in the opening half.

``We just haven’t been strong enough with the ball and some of those turnovers happen because of careless passes,’’ Vucevic said. ``We just really have to be better in that area. Those turnovers are just like giving away a possession. If you take a shot – no matter what the shot is – it gives you a chance to set your defense. But when you have a turnover, it’s harder to recover from that – especially when you have as many as we had tonight. We have to be better with the ball.

``Like I’ve said, our room for error right now is very minimal,’’ Vucevic added. ``We can’t afford to make mistakes of our own that cost us.’’

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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