By John Denton
Oct. 29, 2017
CHARLOTTE – When the Orlando Magic’s ball movement waned and their defensive intensity was even more absent most of Sunday night, their feel-good start to the season came to a screeching halt and their history of struggles in Charlotte continued.
An Orlando team that whipped Miami, Cleveland and San Antonio and avenged its only loss to Brooklyn didn’t start well on Sunday and it handled its first bit of adversity poorly against a Charlotte team used to giving the Magic fits.
When Orlando grew stagnant offensively early on and had little-to-no success in stopping guard Kemba Walker and center Dwight Howard all night, it resulted in a frustrating 120-113 at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center.
The Magic have now lost eight games in a row to Charlotte (3-3), their Southeast Division rivals, over the past three seasons. Charlotte won all four meetings against the Magic last season and won them by a whopping 21.8 points per game. This one was much closer, but not any less frustrating considering Orlando’s lack of sharpness much of the game.
“We’ve had two really good games against San Antonio and Cleveland where we had two really good wins and two blowouts, but it’s not going to be like that all season and we need to realize that it’s only been five games,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, a bright spot with 23 points, five assists and two 3-pointers. “We have 77 games left and it’s a long season, so we have to stay composed. After every game we have to stay composed and realize that every game is going to be hard. We’re not that good and someone that is going to just show up and win. We have to bring our A-game every night if we want to be successful.’’
Orlando (4-2) fell behind by 15 points in an unsightly first half and by as many as 16 early in the third quarter before making a charge. However, more errors on the offensive end and the inability to slow Walker and Howard doomed the Magic’s chances of improving to 5-1 for the first time since the 2010-11 season.
“The sense of urgency, I don’t think it was there for us this game,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who had 17 points, but made just seven of 16 shots and two of six 3-pointers. “We were just lackadaisical, not finding our man and letting them get too many second-chance points. That will kill you and we just weren’t doing the little stuff.’’
It’s the third time this season that the Magic have surrendered at least 120 points – two of which have resulted in losses. Orlando failed to score at least 114 points for a sixth consecutive game, but it was the defense that was solely the culprit for this loss.
“We’re proud of how we fought (in the second half), but 120 points is going to get you beat and 54 percent (allowed) is going to get you beat,’’ said Magic coach Frank Vogel, referring to Charlotte’s season highs in both categories. “We’ve just got to do a better job on the defensive end.’’
Vogel said before the game that he considered Walker to be an elite point guard and the Charlotte standout proved that again and again on Sunday. After Orlando clawed back to within 95-92 early in the fourth quarter, Walker responded with a pull-up 3-pointer and a driving layup as he was fouled by Bismack Biyombo.
Minutes later, after Orlando once again got within six, Walker again responded with a pick-and-roll layup and another three to help Charlotte rebuild its cushion. Walker finished with 34 points on 15 of 25 shooting with two 3-pointers.
The Hornets were a plus-22 in Walker’s 35 minutes and a minus-15 when he rested.
“We’ve had some slippage with matching up in transition and rebounding, but what the game came down to really at the end was Kemba,’’ said Fournier. “Historically we do have problems with Kemba. I’d like to know the stat for what he averages against us the last two or three years. But he’s a tough cover, a great player and an all-star.’’
Howard, Orlando’s all-star center from 2004-12, finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds. He even made two free throws with 3:01 to play when the Magic resorted to the Hack-A-Howard strategy – points that basically sealed Orlando’s fate. The Hornets were a plus-14 with Howard on the floor for 31 minutes.
Charlotte, which won for the first time this season in a game in which it gave up 100 points, shot 54.1 percent with six threes. The Magic made just 42.3 percent from the floor and 11 of 33 3-point shots.
Orlando was able to stay close only because of the aggressiveness of Fournier and reserve guard Jonathon Simmons, who had a career-best 27 points on nine-of-15 shooting with three 3-pointers and six free throws. Simmons, whom the Magic signed away from San Antonio in July, easily outdid his previous career high of 20 points set early last season.
“Him getting to the (free throw) line is a big benefit for us this year,’’ Vogel said. “He’s doing a terrific job for us. We played him at point guard down the stretch to try and counter Kemba and see what he could do on the offensive end. He was good on both ends.’’
The night was mostly a struggle for Nikola Vucevic (six of 17, 15 points) and Terrence Ross (six of 15, 17 points). Point guard D.J. Augustin, who had played well in place of the injured Elfrid Payton (strained left hamstring), struggled through a dismal zero-of-seven shooting night in 23 minutes.
Jeremy Lamb chipped in 20 points for the Hornets, while Marvin Williams added 13.
“We were having mental lapses and we didn’t get enough stops down the stretch and that really hurt us,’’ Ross said. “We started off a little flat and you can’t always win games like this. It’s hard to come back. We just didn’t take advantage of them from the jump.’’
Orlando concludes its second of 15 back-to-back sets of games on Monday when it faces the Pelicans in New Orleans. The Pelicans recently added former Magic standout Jameer Nelson and forward Josh Smith because of injuries and they got superstar forward Anthony Davis back from a brief scare with his knee. New Orleans (3-3) routed Cleveland on Saturday 123-101 behind a triple-double from DeMarcus Cousins (29 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists) and a big night from Davis (30 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks).
Orlando’s three-game road trip doesn’t conclude until Wednesday when it plays the Grizzlies in Memphis.
“(The three-game roadtrip) is an early measuring stick, but you know, we can’t make too many rash judgements about a single game or a series (of games),’’ Vogel said. “We have a very difficult trip against three really good teams that are tough to beat in their buildings and have all-star-level players. It will be a measuring stick, but like we’ve said all along we’re going to keep an even keel whatever the results are, positive or negative.’’
Down 61-49 after a dispiriting first half, Orlando saw Charlotte push its way out an 86-70 lead with five minutes left in the third quarter. But Orlando’s second unit helped to get the team back into the game, crafting a 16-7 run that got the Magic within 93-86 by the start of the fourth period.
Sunday’s first half was easily the worst 24-minute stretch of the season thus far as the Magic yielded 52.9 percent shooting and forced far too many shots offensively – factors that led to them trailing the Hornets 61-49 at intermission.
Walker and Howard each had 13 points in the first half as the Hornets got just about anywhere they wanted to go early on against the Magic’s defense.
On the other end, the Magic seemed to get away from the passing and playing for to others that helped them pile up some gaudy offensive numbers over the first five games. Orland shot just 34 percent in the opening half and connected on only five of 19 3-point shots.
“It just took us too long to get our urgency going,’’ Gordon surmised. “People aren’t going to take us lightly anymore and we’ve got to come out with urgency for 48 minutes. If we don’t do that, it’s not going to be good for us.
“We’ve got some good teams coming up and we’ve got another game tomorrow,’’ Gordon added. “We’ve got to put this one behind us, learn from it and move on.’’
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