Postgame Report: Magic Unable to Slow Down Kawhi, Clippers

by John Denton

ORLANDO – With the Orlando Magic stuck in one of their worst ruts of the season, the last team and superstar player that they wanted to see on Sunday was the Los Angeles Clippers and unflappable forward Kawhi Leonard.

However, that’s just what they got on Sunday at the Amway Center. Fortunately for the struggling and sputtering Magic, they almost certainly won’t have to see the surging Clippers and the supremely talented Leonard again this season.

On a somber Sunday in which both teams mourned the death of NBA legend and five-time champion Kobe Bryant, the Clippers wiped out an early Orlando lead, rode a 31-point effort from Leonard and rolled to a 112-97 victory that was their 13thconsecutive win over the Magic.

Orlando (21-26) has not beaten the Clippers (33-14) since Nov. 6, 2013. Making matters worse on Sunday, Orlando dropped its third straight game in a three-game home stand.

``I thought there was no energy throughout the whole game, especially in that third quarter on both sides,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who wore black and gold Kobe Bryant-modeled Nike shoes in the game. ``Obviously, it was a weird game. But we just didn’t fight tonight and had no energy.’’

After a moment of silence was held in honor of Bryant, the fans inside the Amway Center broke out a brief chant of `Ko-be! Ko-be! Ko-be!’’ Then, the two teams opened the game with a couple of touching tributes. The Clippers intentionally got a 24-second violation in honor of Bryant’s jersey number from the 2006-07 season through the 2015-16 season. The Magic then kept the ball in the backcourt for an 8-second violation in honor of the No. 8 that Bryant wore for his first 10 NBA seasons.

``Kobe and I have had some interactions over the years and had become acquaintances and this past summer it really felt like he was starting to develop a mentorship with me, and that was a beautiful thing,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who worked as a camp counselor at Bryant’s ``Mamba Academy’’ last summer. ``Some of the things he was teaching us about the game of basketball and the game of life. He’s a very unique individual and a fierce competitor. It’s just sad, personally and selfishly, that I don’t get to develop a relationship with him. It’s just so sad for him, his family and (daughter) Gigi, as well.’’

Similar to Friday when it fell to the Boston Celtics, Orlando built a double-digit lead in the early going of Sunday’s game, but saw that lead disappear under an avalanche of missed shots and poor possessions offensively. The Magic scored just 20 third-quarter points in a second straight game, and when the Clippers outscored them 31-20 in the period, it broke a close game open.

``I thought our intent and energy level to start the game was good, but we had the one stretch in the second quarter where there was frustration,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said. ``Listen, I just told the guys this: We weren’t a team at the beginning of the season that was a going to be an offensive juggernaut anyway. We’re going to win or lose based on defense and rebounding more than anything else. We do have to score enough, but I think what has happened is … what I saw is we missed shots and, for the first time, it just sapped our energy and it hurt our defense and it hurt our physicality.

``We can’t do that,’’ Clifford continued. ``We’re not going to be 110-109 against a team like that. We’ve got to defend every time and hang in there. We can win, but we can’t be worried about when the ball didn’t go in the basket. We can’t let that take away our chance.’’

Leonard, who battered the Magic for 27.8 points in a five-game playoff defeat last spring, missed his first three shots of Sunday’s game. However, he was as unflappable as ever while making 11 of 20 shots and grabbing 14 rebounds for a Clippers team that has now won six of its last seven games.

Nikola Vucevic led Orlando with 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists, but he made just five of 15 shots. Fournier (11 points) and Gordon (10 points and 10 rebounds) also struggled through five of 19 and three of 12 shooting nights, respectively. Michael Carter-Williams (15 points, eight assists and seven rebounds) and Mo Bamba (10 points, four rebounds and three blocks) helped get Orlando with 90-83 with 8:30 to play.

No place summed up the Magic’s frustration more than the 3-point line. While going seven of 32 from beyond the arc, Terrence Ross (zero for six), Vucevic (zero for five) and Fournier (one of eight) struggled mightily.

``We’ve just got to keep fighting,’’ said Carter-Williams, who was one of the lone bright spots by making six of 11 shots. ``I know that’s kind of just generic, but we’ve got to put a full 48 minutes together.’’

Clifford and Clippers coach Doc Rivers said they both talked with Bryant within the last month about basketball and life outside of the sport. Clifford was a part of the Magic team that lost to Bryant’s Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals, and he coached with Bryant in 2012-13 when he worked for the Lakers. As for Rivers, his Celtics beat Bryant’s Lakers for the 2008 NBA crown, while Bryant and the Lakers edged the Celtics in seven games of the 2010 NBA Finals.

``Sometimes things don’t make sense and there are times when you should feel, just, just feel sad, and this is one of them,’’ Rivers said prior to his team facing off against the Magic. ``You know you have to get through it, and we will, we all will. We have to be strong. We laughed and joked about the `Mamba Mentality,’ and we’re all going to need it right now.’’

Said Clifford prior to the game: ``Well, I mean, obviously, it’s shocking and it’s tragic. I just had a conversation with him about, maybe 3 to 3 ½ weeks ago, and … he was an incredibly brilliant man and he was incredibly passionate about our game, driven. Really, an honor to have the chance to have been around him.’’

Montrezl Harrell had 19 points and five rebounds for the Clippers, while Lou Williams scored 15 points and Landry Shamet poured in 19 points and four 3-pointers. The Clippers had a 53-45 rebounding edge and scored 20 second-chance points.

The Magic came into Sunday in one of their worst droughts thus far, having dropped two straight and four of five. They lost games to the Clippers and Warriors late in last week’s road trip before winning in Charlotte on Monday. However, returning home provided little relief for the Magic as they dropped games at the Amway Center to Oklahoma City (Wednesday) and Boston (Friday).

Incredibly, Orlando has now lost its last 13 games against the Clippers – its longest active losing streak against any NBA team. One of those losses came last week in Los Angeles when the Clippers battered the fatigued Magic, 122-95 at Staples Center. The losing streak dates back to Nov. 6, 2013.

The Magic will be back in action again on Monday night when they face the rival Miami Heat in South Florida. Orlando whipped the Heat 105-85 back on Jan. 3 at the Amway Center.

The Magic went into Sunday 5-9 this season in back-to-back sets of games. Prior to Sunday, they are 4-3 on the first night of those scenarios and 1-6 on the second night of back-to-backs.

``It’s a quick turnaround, we play (on Monday) and (the Heat) are a tough team and one of the best teams in the NBA at home,’’ Carter-Williams said. ``We’ve got to go in there and play a full 48. If we get a lead, they’re going to try to fight back and if they get a lead they’re going to push it. So, we’ve got to go in there and all of us and have to play well. It can’t just be one or two of us; we all have to play well.’’

After Monday, Orlando will get four nights off to recover. They will be back at the Amway Center on Saturday when they once again host the rival Heat.

Within two at intermission, the Magic saw the game get away from them following another ugly third quarter. Two nights after making just seven of 25 shots in a 20-point third period against the Boston, the Magic connected on just six of 27 shots Sunday’s 20-point third period. Leonard had 15 all by himself in the quarter and the Clippers took an 85-72 edge into the fourth period.

Orlando trailed 54-52 at the half – a disconcerting fact considering that it led by as much as 11 early in the second quarter. Mo Bamba’s 3-pointer gave the Magic a 37-26 edge and made things look as if they could break the game open in the early going.

However, Williams and Harrell – two of the most potent bench players in the NBA – got going and got the Clippers back into the game. They scored 18 straight L.A. over a 10-minute, 14-second stretch of the first half. Then, after Leonard heated up for nine straight points, the Clippers had the lead.

Rebounding was a big problem in the early going for Orlando. The Clippers had a 28-17 rebounding edge in the game’s first 24 minutes and their eight offensive boards led to 11 second-chance points that hurt the Magic dearly.

Foremost among the Magic’s issues is trying to find a way to get Vucevic – an all-star last season – going again.

``He puts a lot of pressure on himself to play well and he’s going through a (difficult) stretch right now,’’ Clifford said of Vucevic, who has made just 21 of 52 shots in his last three games. ``Look, all I know is he had a tough game (Wednesday) and we practiced at 11 (on Thursday) and he was on the floor at 9:30 with (assistant coach) Mike Batiste. He always does a lot extra. Listen, guys go through stretches and last year he was incredibly consistent. He’s a very good player and I have good confidence that he will turn it around soon.’’

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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