TORONTO – Armed with the statistics of the Orlando Magic returning 12 players who comprised some 86 percent of the minutes played last season, a Canadian-based reporter asked head coach Steve Clifford prior to Monday’s game about how his team had benefitted thus far from the continuity on the roster.
The answer given by Clifford had to be as surprising to the reporter as the puzzling results thus far have been for the struggling Magic.
``We’re 29th in offense, so it hasn’t helped us at all,’’ a brutally honest Clifford surmised. ``It’s a different team and we’ve added two guys (in Markelle Fultz and Al-Farouq Aminu) who are playing big roles. But, I think as much as anything, it’s about not being healthy in the preseason. … Our guys are working – it’s not attitude, or not working – but we haven’t `jumped off,’ as you put it, from last season.’’
That became blatantly clear once again on Monday night as the Magic looked nothing like the squad that dominated late last season and reached the postseason. On this night, the Magic again saw many of their foundational players struggle badly to make shots, and then following a rally, the offense went ice-cold again. Orlando did show plenty of grit in rallying to take a late lead, but when its poor 3-point shooting resurfaced at the wrong time, it led to a dispiriting 104-95 loss to the Toronto Raptors.
Orlando (1-2) spent much of the first three quarters trailing by double digits against the Raptors (3-1) before launching into an impressive fourth-quarter surge. Trailing 87-76 midway through the fourth quarter, Clifford moved Jonathan Isaac to the center position and surrounded him with shooting and playmaking. The result was the Magic going on a 13-0 run, one that allowed them to surge past Toronto and take their first lead since the first quarter at 89-87.
However, the positive vibes wouldn’t last long for the Magic, who immediately surrendered a 10-2 Toronto run fueled by the play of blossoming star Pascal Siakam (24 points and nine rebounds). Open 3-point misses by Aaron Gordon and Markelle Fultz played a role in the Raptors’ run and ended the Magic’s hopes of somehow salvaging a mostly ugly night.
``We battled, and I know this team has heart. And even coming out in the second half and not starting so good, we fought,’’ said Isaac, who scored a career-best 24 points and made five of seven 3-point shots. ``We got back in it, but we just weren’t able to close.’’
For the game, Orlando shot just 38.2 percent from the floor and made only 12 of 39 3-point shots. All-star center Nikola Vucevic (one of 13, five points) didn’t play in the fourth quarter as Clifford turned to Isaac, while Gordon (one of six, two points), D.J. Augustin (three of nine, 10 points) and Terrence Ross (four of 11, 11 points) all struggled mightily to make shots.
Vucevic was baffled by his struggles on Monday and couldn’t believe that he misfired on mid-range jumpers and short hook shots – usually his go-to moves.
``I was just off, man. I had great looks and open looks and I just didn’t make them,’’ said Vucevic, who struggled last spring in the playoffs, but nothing quite like the depths of Monday’s performance. ``I don’t remember going one for 13 – I don’t think I’ve ever done that before – and I’ve got to make my shots. When I get the looks like I did tonight, I’ve got to make them. Simple as that, and I’ve got to come through.’’
The Magic came into the night at or near the bottom in almost every major offensive statistical category and those numbers aren’t likely to improve after more struggles on Monday. Other than Isaac making seven of 10 shots, five of seven 3-pointers and all five of his free throws, points were highly difficult to come by against a Toronto defense that has already established itself as an elite unit on that end of the floor.
As frustrated as he was about the Magic’s sputtering offense, Clifford was irked by a couple of blown coverages late in the night to ruin the comeback effort.
``They scored six points on two pick-and-roll mistakes and actually the same thing happened (on Saturday) night where our defense was mostly good and (Atlanta’s) Trae Young scored five points on mistakes late. Tonight, (Kyle) Lowry scored six points on mistakes,’’ Clifford said.
``The game, though, was the free throw game and the beginning of the first (quarter) and the beginning of the third (quarter),’’ Clifford continued. ``We’re getting off to such bad starts with our starters. That’s five straight halves now (of being outscored) and we’re playing from behind, which is hard to do on the road.’’
Evan Fournier came alive late after struggling early and finished with 18 points. He made seven of 15 shots.
The Magic won their season-opener against Cleveland last Wednesday, but subsequently dropped the next two games on the road. Orlando shot 35.4 percent from the floor and made just five of 31 3-point tries in Saturday’s 103-99 loss to the Hawks in Atlanta.
The best stretch of basketball in recent days came via desperation late in Monday’s game. Clifford moved the nearly 7-foot Isaac to center, a move he toyed with during the summer and training camp. On Monday, it got the Magic back into the game before the late defensive gaffes ruined the rally.
``We talked about that (position switch) through training camp and we practiced with it with me at the (center position), so I was comfortable with it,’’ Isaac said. ``We went to it, tried to play out of it and win the game.’’
Toronto (3-1) shot just 38.8 percent from the floor. The Raptors, who were paying homage to the 1995 season by wearing a uniform design from their inaugural team, got 26 points and three 3-pointers from Lowry.
The two teams were meeting for the first time since last spring when Toronto beat Orlando, 4-1 in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The Magic won Game 1 on a 3-pointer in the final seconds by D.J. Augustin, but the Raptors rallied to win the next four games in a row. They used that momentum to also defeat Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Golden State for the franchise’s first NBA title.
``They were really good last year at the end of the year and they were a tough out in the playoffs,’’ Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of the Magic. ``I know it was 4-1 and we beat them four straight, but they were really rolling. They’ve got size, they’re well coached, they’ve got some shooting and tremendous length, obviously. They look very similar and they should because there weren’t many changes. It’s just guys getting another year older, and they’ve implemented a few changes as well, and that’s a good basketball team.’’
Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green defected from Canada to the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, respectively, in free agency. But those losses had little effect on the Raptors early in the season as they started with impressive wins against New Orleans and Chicago.
Orlando will be back in action on Wednesday night when it faces the New York Knicks at the Amway Center. The Magic were scheduled to depart Toronto immediately after Monday’s game and arrive back in Central Florida at approximately 2 a.m. on Tuesday morning. The Magic won three of four meetings against the Knicks last season, losing only the February meeting at Madison Square Garden when Orlando’s bench was badly outplayed.
Before Wednesday’s game, Vucevic plans to get in some work on his jump short. He said he’ll be at the Magic practice facility on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, getting up the shots that he has a long history of making throughout his NBA career.
``It’s just about moving onto the next game and keep working on my game,’’ Vucevic said. ``I’m not worried about it because I know I’ll snap out of it. (ON Tuesday), I’ll go to the gym and get shots up and then be ready for New York. All it takes is a few shots to go in or one big game and then you’ll forget about the game before.’’
Orlando trailed 51-46 at the half and it was lucky to even be that close considering how choppy and disjointed the offense was much of the first 24 minutes. And the Magic couldn’t even feel good about being within striking distance after surrendering a buzzer-beating layup to Lowry just before the start of intermission, pushing Toronto’s lead back up to five.
Things started poorly for Orlando’s offense – 8 of 25 shooting in the first period – and they didn’t get much better in the second quarter. In the opening half, the Magic connected on just 31.9 percent of their shots with eight turnovers.
Vucevic missed eight of his first nine shots, Fournier started the game with five straight misses and Gordon went scoreless in the first half because of four straight misses. The shooting woes even affected Augustin, who misfired on two free throws despite historically being one of the league’s best from the line.
The offensive woes might have completely ruined the night if not for the 22-year-old Isaac coming to the rescue early on. With Toronto clearly backing off his and daring him to shoot, Isaac scored nine of Orlando’s first 12 points by burying three 3-pointers. By halftime, he has 13 points with three rebounds and the three assists.
Things didn’t come quite as easy on the other end of the floor for Isaac, who had all kinds of issues while trying to check the blossoming Siakam. The NBA’s reigning Most Improved Player award winner scored 13 points and handed out assists that led to two more 3-pointers for the Raptors.
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