Postgame Report: Magic Fall to Mavs

Markelle Fultz
by John Denton

ORLANDO – While discussing the improvements needed over the final stretch of the regular season for the Orlando Magic to string together another stirring run to the playoffs, head coach Steve Clifford did what he normally does and pointed directly at the defense.

``We’ve been really good defensively,’’ Clifford said while pausing for effect, ``but we need to be great.’’

On Friday night, greatness was reserved for transcendent, all-star guard Luka Doncic and the hot-shooting Dallas Mavericks.

Doncic decimated the Magic in the early going with his step-back shooting and his precise passing and the second-year NBA superstar got plenty of help from Kristaps Porzingis and Maxi Kleber in the second half to carve up Orlando’s defense in a 122-106 win for Dallas.

Orlando (24-34) had hoped to pick up where it left off prior to the break for the NBA All-Star Game when it won two straight games. However, the Magic had few defensive answers all night for Doncic (33 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists), Porzingis (24 points, 10 rebounds and four 3-pointers) and Kleber (a career-best 26 points and three 3-pointers). The Magic led for just 20 seconds in the game – at 69-68 in the third quarter – before allowing Dallas (34-22) to pull away again.

``There were a lot of things we could have done better in this game, but I just thought our attention to detail just wasn’t there from the start,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who had 10 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and two steals in his first game since his controversial runner-up finish in the Slam Dunk Contest in Chicago last weekend. ``Yeah, we did a good job of fighting back, but if you are just going to give away possession after possession, you’re not going to be able to win in this league.’’

The Mavs, one of the NBA’s surprise stories of the season, came into Friday ranked first in the NBA in made 3-pointers per game (15.2), fifth in 3-point accuracy (37.1 percent) and third in scoring (116.4). They more than lived up to that billing before a sellout crowd of 18,846 at the Amway Center by making 15 of 38 3-point shots and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor.

``We struggled early at both ends of the floor and they were very good,’’ Clifford said of his team’s up-and-down night both offensively and defensively. ``I thought in the second quarter and third quarter we were much better and did some good things. And, then, in both halves when we broke the lineup we really struggled. Hopefully, we got that one behind us and we’ll get ready to play better on Monday.’’

Kleber, who made 10 of 13 shots in the game after being moved to Dallas’ second unit, scored 11 points in the first five minutes of the fourth period – burying three 3-pointers and converting a thunderous dunk – as the Mavericks broke open a close game.

With its defense mostly ineffective – particularly in pick-and-roll plays involving Doncic and Kleber or Doncic and Porzingis – that put the focus an Orlando offense that has struggled to keep pace most of the season. The Magic missed their first nine 3-point shots and 18 of 19 to open the game. They finished at nine of a season-high 43 from 3-point range and shot just 39.4 percent overall for the game. Orlando lost despite taking 20 more shots than the Mavs and grabbing a whopping 16 offensive rebounds – five by guard Michael Carter-Williams.

Evan Fournier scored 18 of his 28 points in the third quarter and connected on five 3-point shots, while center Nikola Vucevic finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds. Terrence Ross had another three 3-pointers and 19 points off the Orlando bench.

Point guard Markelle Fultz had 14 points and nine assists by routinely getting to the rim, but he had to leave the game with a left calf injury with 3:27 left in the third period. At the time, Orlando trailed just 81-78, but it was outscored 23-13 over the next seven-plus minutes.

Fournier and Ross combined to make eight of their 20 3-point shots, but the rest of the team was just one of 23 on tries from beyond the arc. The Magic, statistically one of the worst shooting teams in the league, are just 3-9 this season when they attempt at least 35 3-point shots.

``Bad loss, obviously. We started the game just not playing well,’’ said Fournier, who made 10 of 19 shots. ``When we got the lead, we had a good thing going. We were aggressive, we were getting deflections, we were into the ball more and we were on point with the veers (defensive coverage). Then, we stopped playing that way. We were just passive defensively, not aggressive, not on the ball and that’s pretty much the game.’’

Earlier in the day, beloved point guard Darrell Armstrong added another chapter to his underdog story when he was inducted into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame. Armstrong, who played for the Magic from 1995-2003, ranks second in franchise history in steals (830), third in assists (2,555), fifth in games played (502), sixth in 3-pointers made (654) and 10thin points scored (5,898). Armstrong, who was honored at midcourt between the first and second quarters, is most well-known for his starring role on Orlando’s 1999-00 team that was dubbed ``Heart and Hustle’’ for its grit while compiling an improbable 41-41 record.

``That ``Heart and Hustle’’ (nickname) – I don’t know who started it – but that always identified who I was and that’s how I tried to play,’’ Armstrong said following a tearful induction speech. ``It’s just about leaving your soul out on that floor and doing whatever it took to win.’’

Clifford wasted no time elevating small forward James Ennis III into the starting lineup, giving him the nod for Friday’s first game following the eight-day break for the NBA All-Star Game. Ennis, a five-year NBA veteran who has played for seven teams, was acquired in a deal with Philadelphia just prior to the NBA trade deadline on Feb. 6. Clifford feels Ennis’ combination of shooting and defensive versatility can bring a couple of elements that the Magic have been missing.

``What you look for is you do the lineups to give your team the best chance to play well and have the most balance,’’ Clifford said prior to Ennis missing five of six shots and all three of his 3-point shots on Friday. ``By starting him, we have more shooting on the floor, he’s a veteran player, he's played in big games and he can play against starters. I think it gives us the most flexibility to get to more balanced play through 48 minutes.’’

Friday’s game also marked the return of veteran point guard D.J. Augustin, who had been out since Jan. 15 with ``bone irritation’’ in his left knee. The Magic went just 5-10 in the 15 games that Augustin missed, and the team is confident that those numbers will turn around in due time because of the trickle-down effect that Augustin’s presence has on several players in the regular rotation. On Friday, however, Augustin missed both of his shots and failed to score in 16 minutes.

Orlando won’t be back in action until Monday when they face off against the Nets in Brooklyn. The Magic opened Friday in the No. 8 seed, just back of the seventh-seeded Nets. Monday’s game will be the second of four meetings this season against the Nets. The Magic are 1-0 thus far against Brooklyn.

Down as much as 18 in the first half, the Magic incredibly took their first lead of the night at 69-68 following a 17-4 start to the third period. That lead would last just 20 seconds and later, Orlando got the game tied at 75 and 78, but it found itself trailing 92-84 at the end of three periods.

Fournier gave the Magic a much-needed offensive boost in the third quarter when he made seven of 11 shots and scored 18 points in the period. It was his driving layup with 6:50 to play that gave the Magic a brief one-point lead.

The Magic got shelled in the early going by Doncic’s fearless shooting and playmaking and they found themselves down 16 at the end of the first quarter and trailing 64-52 at the half. Doncic needed just 17 minutes on the floor to compile 24 points, five rebounds and five assists.

Orlando’s defensive woes were combatted by more struggles shooting the ball from the perimeter. The Magic missed their first nine 3-point shots and 18 of the first 19 attempts from beyond the arc as the Mavericks’ high-powered offense was clicking on all cylinders. The Magic’s second and third 3-pointers of the half didn’t come until the final two minutes of the half when Fournier connected on consecutive tries.

Asked after the game about Clifford’s assessment that the Magic must be great defensively to cover their other flaws, Fournier agreed because of a fact that has become readily apparent to the team through 56 games of the season.

``Yeah, because we can’t score and we have to play great D,’’ a flustered Fournier said. ``If we’re just good defensively, it’s not going to be good enough with the struggles that we have offensively.’’

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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