Postgame Report: Magic Struggle Offensively in Road Loss to Heat

Markelle Fultz
by John Denton

MIAMI – Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford is up front and direct about the fact that in the world of the professional basketball, no one cares about how a rash of injuries or the marathon-like NBA schedule take a toll on a team, stressing, ``this is not an excuse league.’’

Still, Clifford knows what his eyes are telling him when watching video footage of the recent rut that the Magic have found themselves in of late. The Magic are, Clifford said somewhat reluctantly prior to tipoff on Monday, a tired team and that is now manifesting itself in a trouble trend of bad habits. On Monday in Miami, the wear and tear of playing 18 times in 33 nights, playing for the second time in as many days and playing without three key rotational players because of injuries proved quite evident again and led to another lopsided loss.

Facing a well-rested Miami team, Orlando’s starting five opened each half particularly slow, looked sluggish offensively again and ultimately fell 113-92 to the rival Heat for their fourth straight defeat and the sixth loss in the past seven games.

``Obviously, we’re not playing at a level that we know that we can,’’ said Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who had 13 points and 12 rebounds but struggled with his shot once again (five of 15 overall). ``Start of games isn’t good. The second half it was six (as a halftime deficit) and it jumps right back to 20. Obviously, that’s bad, but the way it happens is just not us. It sucks and it’s not the way we want it to be, but we’ve got four days to regroup, get some practice time in and get our rhythm back. We have to learn from this and make sure it doesn’t happen again. In these last (34) games, we have to step our games up, starting with the best players.’’

Orlando (21-27) will mercifully get a break in the schedule with four off nights coming with which it will attempt to try and turn around its slumping season. The time off couldn’t come at a better moment for a Magic team that appears to have lost its way offensively and one that continues to allow the frustration of not making shots to affect its defensive fight in games. On Monday, the Magic led only once all night (at 5-4 in the opening minutes), trailed by 16 in the second quarter and by as much as 24 in an unsightly second half.

Afterward, Clifford let loose about the Magic’s sloppiness and stressed that he expected more from a team that reached the playoffs last season and has postseason ambitions once again.

``To me, it’s pretty simple – the start of the game and the start of the third … (were subpar),’’ Clifford said. ``You come on the road against a good team and you need to be able to get off to a good start and our starters got badly outplayed to start the game and they got crushed to start the third quarter.

``One, we don’t make any shots and two, we make a ton of mistakes,’’ Clifford continued, referring to his team’s poor third quarters in the past three games. ``There’s no worse play defensively that you can make in our league than to foul a jump shooter; it shows a complete lack of discipline. … These last two nights, we fouled, I believe, six jump shooters on 3-point shots. It shows a complete lack of concentration, understanding of basketball and it’s awful. I just told them, if we want to be a playoff team – which we should be, or we can be – then we should play the rest of the year and not have six of those (fouls of jump-shooters).’’

Miami (32-14) took advantage of having not played since Friday and battered Orlando with hard drives to the rim, drive-and-kick 3-pointers and a balanced offensive attack. Rookie guard Duncan Robinson poured in 21 points and hit six 3-pointers, while star guard Jimmy Butler (19 points and seven assists) and third-year forward Bam Adebayo (a triple-double with 20 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds) played well for a Heat team that improved to 21-2 at American Airlines Arena. Miami’s two home losses this season have come to the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers.

``I thought defensively, we just let go of the rope, we weren’t playing smart enough and we got outcompeted, especially in that second half and the first four-or-five minutes of the third quarter with that 16-4 run,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who scored 13 points – 11 of which came in the first half. ``Against a team like that that plays hard, it’s difficult to get back into the game. We’ll see (the Heat) again on Saturday, but we’ve got to figure this out.’’

Evan Fournier (three of 13 overall, one of seven from 3-point range and nine points) and Terrence Ross (four of 14 overall, three of 10 from 3-point range and 11 points) weren’t much better for an Orlando team that connected on just 37.1 percent of its shots and only 11 of 37 3-pointers.

``It doesn’t really matter who we’re playing against because it’s really just about us now,’’ Fournier fumed. ``These last four games, we haven’t played in a way that we don’t usually play. No attention to details and we don’t have a max effort. It’s not us – at least that’s how I feel – and that’s the most frustrating part. We’re going to use these four days to refocus, try to move on and be the Magic again.’’

Miami, which lost by 20 in Orlando on Jan. 3, got a measure of revenge by throttling the Magic with its 53.2 percent shooting and 14 3-pointers. The Heat will be back at the Amway Center to face the Magic on Saturday.

Markelle Fultz was a bright spot with 12 points, seven assists and four rebounds. Mo Bamba chipped in 10 points and three rebounds off the bench, while Wes Iwundu scored six points, handed out two assists and swiped on steal.

In a scene similar to the one that played out on Sunday at the Amway Center, the two teams tried honoring the memory of the late, great Kobe Bryant. First, the Heat intentionally took a 24-second violation to honor the No. 24 that Bryant wore for the final 10 years of his career. Then, the Magic took an 8-second backcourt violation in recognition of the No. 8 that Bryant wore in his first 10 NBA seasons.

The Magic have their fewest back-to-back sets of games in the 31-year history of their franchise with 11, but there’s a tricky caveat to that low number of games on consecutive nights. In 10 of those 11 back-to-backs, the Magic are at a rest disadvantage. Monday was another of those situations with them playing for a second straight night while the Heat had been off since Friday. Six times this season, the Magic will be playing on the second night of a back-to-back, while their opponent will have had at least two nights off.

After playing a grueling stretch of 18 games in 33 nights and having more than one day of rest between games just once since Dec. 27, the Magic will get a much-needed break the next few days. The Magic will be off on Tuesday and Wednesday before returning to practice on Thursday and Friday to prepare for Saturday’s home game against the rival Heat.

``I don’t want to make excuses, but tonight is nine (games) in 15 (days) for us, just like everybody else, and it’s 18 in (33), with a ton of travel,’’ Clifford said prior to tipoff of the grind his team has faced in recent weeks. ``I told them (Sunday) night after the game: Until the Oklahoma City game (on Wednesday), I feel like we’ve played with as much effort as anybody in the league. We’ve played hard, and like a lot of other teams we’ve taken a ton of injuries, and these guys have kept going and have played through it. We played three tired games at home in a row, and yet we could have won all three of them. But we have to find a way (on Monday) and if you can’t find a way to get ready then you are in the wrong business. This is not an excuse league – you get a schedule and you play the games – but I do believe when you are a coach and you’re sitting and watching you have to look at what is in front of you.’’

Much the way it did in the previous two games – losses to Boston and the Los Angeles Clippers – the Magic had a dreadful start to the second half. Orlando made just three of its first 11 shots to fall behind by as much as 24 points at 79-55. Orlando would rally over the second half of the third period, but it still found itself trailing 85-71 as the fourth quarter was about to begin.

``It is frustrating (struggling offensively), but we have to continue to play the right way,’’ Gordon said. ``We all have to be ready to shoot and we’ve got to be ready to make plays at all times. I think if we continue to make play the right way, then it’s going to turn around for us. And we’ll have a way to play that will win in the playoffs, too.’’

Things looked especially rocky in the early going for the Magic as they fell into a 16-point hole midway through the second period. However, the Magic got a spark from Gordon and used a 23-13 run to get within 54-48 by halftime.

Though they didn’t shoot the ball well, the Magic did share it with exceptional passing. Of its 18 field goals in the opening half, 15 of them were set up by Magic assists. Fultz handed out six assists in the first half, while Fournier had five. Vucevic set up two of Fournier’s three first-half field goals with nifty passes off cuts.

Gordon was the beneficiary of some of that passing. His first shot of the game was a made 3-pointer from the right corner, and he scored 11 first-half points by making five of nine field goals.

Orlando stayed close in the first half despite getting very little at all out of Ross, the hero of the Magic’s Jan. 3 defeat of the Heat with 25 points and six 3-pointers. He missed all six of his shots in the first half – five of them coming from beyond the arc. Evan more troubling was the fact that Ross was coming off a three-of-15 shooting night – and zero-for-six from 3-point range – on Sunday against the Clippers.

Fournier said the Magic must spend the next four days trying to figure out how the starters can play with more energy, force and precision in order to avoid instances of getting badly outplayed – as was the case yet again on Monday in Miami.

``I mean, we sucked, period,’’ Fournier said of the slow second-half starts in each of the past three games. ``Offensively … defensively … just terrible. It was just a terrible performance, starting with myself not being able to create anything and not being locked in defensively. It’s got to be on each and every one of us to just pick it up, man.’’

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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