ORLANDO – Progress during rebuilding is rarely ever linear, and the Orlando Magic were painfully reminded of that again on Wednesday in an ugly game against a foe nearly as bad off as they are in the NBA standings.
Much better defensively of late and hopeful that it could build off last Saturday’s home victory, the Magic instead regressed against a Brooklyn Nets team that played with more precision and urgency.
Orlando got shelled defensively most of the night and sealed its own fate by missing its first 11 shots of the fourth quarter in a disappointing 111-104 loss to Brooklyn at the Amway Center.
``It just means that we still have a lot of work to do,’’ forward Aaron Gordon said glumly.
The Magic (22-52) never led in the game, fell behind 8-0 in the early going, trailed by 15 points in the third quarter and found themselves in a 19-point hole in the fourth while going through the offensive meltdown. Orlando got within 85-81 late in the third quarter before going more than six minutes of the fourth period without a field goal to ensure the loss.
``This is very disappointing,’’ said Magic reserve guard Shelvin Mack, who finished with 14 points, six assists and two 3-pointers. ``It felt like we could never get over the hump. We cut it down to four and they got an and-one and then we just kept going back and forth. (The Nets) came out and played hard and deserved to win. We’ve just got to do a better job starting from the get-go and be ready to play.’’
Magic coach Frank Vogel, who has had to mix and match combinations as the injuries have continued to pile up, tried to jar the Magic out of their offensive malaise early in the fourth quarter by bringing Gordon and Mario Hezonja back into the game with 10:44 to play – much earlier than he usually does with his player rotations. Even that move backfired as the Magic proceeded to miss their next eight shots after Gordon and Hezonja checked back into the game.
``I know we went cold, but I’ve got to look at the tape and see specifically what happened with each of those possessions, but certainly that was the decisive stretch in the game,’’ Vogel said.
Brooklyn (24-51) snapped a three-game losing streak by shooting 46 percent from the floor and drilling 12 3-point shots. The Nets not only placed all five starters in double figures in scoring, but seven players scored at least 12 points. Point guard D’Angelo Russell carved up the Magic with 16 points and 12 assists, while Caris LaVert scored 16 points off the bench.
``We just didn’t do a good job of containing the ball and from that they got a lot of threes and threes in transition,’’ said Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who had 24 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, but was under attack defensively all night. ``They had a lot of points in the paint in the first half. We just didn’t do a good enough job defensively. And offensively, it wasn’t good enough either to keep up with their offense.’’
Orlando came into Wednesday having played significantly better on the defensive end of the floor since Feb. 8. The Magic ranked 27th in the NBA in points allowed per possession over the first 53 games of the season. In the 20 games prior to Wednesday, the Magic had improved to 13th in the NBA in that category.
On Wednesday, the Magic’s looked more like the one from the first 53 games than the one that had improved over the last 20 games due to all of the points in the paint and transition threes allowed versus the speedy Nets. Brooklyn’s win allowed it to win the season series, 3-1.
``We knew if we were going to beat them that we had to defend because we weren’t going to outscore them out there,’’ Vucevic said. ``But they run their stuff very well, they have a good offense and they play hard. We just didn’t really respond on the defensive end enough.’’
Gordon scored 11 points in the first quarter, but he had just four the rest of the way and finished with 15 points, three rebounds and three assists. However, the Magic got little else from others in a starting lineup patched together because of various injuries and illness. Jonathon Simmons (bruised wrist), Jonathan Isaac (foot strain), Wes Iwundu (illness), Evan Fournier (knee sprain) and Terrence Ross (knee sprain) missed the game.
Mario Hezonja finished the game well and scored 23 points, making eight of 17 shots and two of six 3-pointers. D.J. Augustin chipped in 14 points and three 3-pointers.
The disappointing defeat meant that the Magic are certain to have a losing record over their current seven-game home stand. Vogel hoped that Orlando would win Wednesday and Friday and go 4-3 during the 17-day span at home, but not even that mini-milestone will be possible now. Orlando started the home stretch in impressive fashion on March 14 with a defeat of Milwaukee, but it has since dropped games against Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. The other win during the home stand was against Phoenix.
``We lost those three in a row, and that was difficult because we wanted to get one against those playoff teams,’’ Vogel said prior to tipoff. ``Against Phoenix, (Brooklyn) and Chicago, they’re not playoff teams, but one of the things we talk about in building a winning culture is that if you’re a playoff team, no team with a losing record comes into your building and gets a win.’’
That happened on Wednesday because, of course, the Magic haven’t yet reached a level of consistency of a playoff team. The early defensive issues and the late struggles offensively were a deadly cocktail on a night when the Magic were playing from behind all night.
``These guys have been a tough matchup for us all season, Brooklyn has, because of their penetration,’’ Vogel said. ``We’ve struggled to contain them throughout the year and we knew this was going to be a challenge for us. We didn’t do a good job of keeping the ball in front of us, plain and simple. … And we didn’t have enough resistance at the rim either. And we didn’t guard in transition. We knew they liked to advance it in transition for threes and we gave up four threes in transition in 2 ½ quarters, so we certainly didn’t do a good enough job there, either.’’
Orlando’s seven-game home stand – one that will have spanned 17 days – comes to a close on Friday night when it hosts the Chicago Bulls. Not only is the seven-game home stand the longest of the season, it is tied for the second-longest in the 29-year history for the Magic franchise.
Including the games against Phoenix, Brooklyn and Chicago, the Magic are also in a stretch of the schedule where they are playing seven consecutive games against teams having dismal seasons. After Friday, Orlando plays Atlanta and New York on the road before returning home to face Dallas and Charlotte. All seven of the teams will be home for the playoffs, which begin April 15.
Orlando was within four to start the fourth period, but the 11 straight missed shots sent it reeling. The Magic trailed 102-83 by the time that they made their first fourth-quarter basket.
The third quarter was filled with lows and highs for the Magic. They fell behind by as many as 15 points following consecutive 3-pointers by Brooklyn’s Crabbe, and appeared to be on the verge of getting blown out. But the Magic would rally by Vucevic’s attacks of the rim and they were within 85-81 by the start of the fourth quarter.
Despite being well-rested and hopeful of finishing the season out on a positive note, the Magic were summarily outplayed on both ends of the floor in the first half. Orlando started poorly and never found its stride – especially on defense – and trailed 58-51 at intermission.
The tone was set for the ragged first half was set in the opening two minutes of the game when Orlando missed its first three shots and allowed the Nets to connect on theirs. That put the Magic in an 8-0 hole right away and it portended what was to come the rest of the night for the Magic.
``They had a lot of wings out there and we had to make adjustments,’’ Gordon said of the Nets. ``Tonight, they were better.’’
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