By John Denton
Oct. 20, 2017
BROOKLYN – All throughout training camp, during the six exhibition games and in the lead-up to the start of the regular season, the mantra has been the same for the Orlando Magic: Play better defense or this season will most likely go like the disappointing ones before.
When the Magic’s defense ultimately collapsed on Friday under an avalanche of points in the paint, second-chance plays and opposing free throws, it ruined any chance of they had of building momentum from an opening victory two nights earlier.
Seven-foot center Nikola Vucevic did his best to keep Orlando afloat with an otherworldly shooting display and a career-best 41 points, but it still wasn’t enough to cover for the poor defense in a disheartening 126-121 loss to the rebuilding Brooklyn Nets.
A crowd of 16,144 at the Barclays Center saw the Nets (1-1) batter the Magic (1-1) with 60 points in the paint, 16 second-chance points and 25 free-throw makes. It was reminiscent of last season when Orlando ranked in the NBA’s bottom-five in nearly every major defensive statistic, and it led another frustration-filled defeat.
“Our defense is what lost us this game,’’ said Vucevic, who made six of eight 3-pointers – both career-best totals – in 35 minutes. “We were able to score, but we never got stops and we could never play our game, which is using the faster pace. And when we did get stops they got offensive rebounds and we fouled a lot. We just didn’t get it done on that (defensive) end.’’
Orlando, which whipped Miami on Wednesday, was without standout forward Aaron Gordon (sprained left ankle) from the start and lost playmaking point guard Elfrid Payton (strained left hamstring) just before halftime. Those injuries undoubtedly played a role in the Magic’s drop off, but they were hardly excuses on a night when Orlando simply didn’t dig in defensively.
“We just had too many breakdowns – fouling jump-shooters, not recognizing player tendencies and not keeping their team off the glass,’’ said Magic coach Frank Vogel, who has tried ramming home the point of needing major defensive improvement this season. “It just wasn’t good enough on that (defensive) end. You can’t give up 126 points and win too many nights.’’
Remarkably, Orlando still had a chance to get the game to overtime in the closing seconds because of the offensive brilliance of Vucevic and guard Evan Fournier. They hit back-to-back 3-pointers late in the fourth quarter to draw Orlando within 117-116, but Brooklyn countered with a banked-in shot from D’Angelo Russell as he was fouled and two free throws from Trevor Booker.
Within 124-121 with 13 seconds to play, Orlando got the ball to Vucevic – who had made 17 of 22 shots and six of eight 3-pointers – but he was unable to get a clear look because of a knee-high pass. Instead, Fournier fired away from the wing only to see his potential game-tying 3-pointer carom off the back iron.
“It’s frustrating because we should have won the game; but with the defensive mistakes we made, we really didn’t deserve to win it,’’ said Fournier, who finished with 22 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two steals. “It was a frustrating night.’’
Jonathon Simmons scored 10 points and rookie Jonathan Isaac contributed nine points and three assists. The 20-year-old Isaac, who got his first start because of the injury to Gordon, was displeased with himself for committing three fouls in the first half. Though it was just his second pro game, Isaac is well aware that the Magic must be grittier on the defensive end if the team is going to claw its way back into contention.
“It was super frustrating because I’m a better defender than that and I’ve got to learn from that,’’ said Isaac, who played just 4 ½ minutes in the opening half because of the three fouls he was called for. “Being in the game early I’ve got to not be so touchy. I thought some of it was just physical play – not that I ever expected to get the call, but I’ll learn from that.’’
Brooklyn, which fell 140-131 in its opener in Indiana, hit 50 percent of its shots with nine 3-pointers on Friday. DeMarre Carroll (17 points), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (15 points), Russell (17 points and six assists), Spencer Dinwiddie (16 points) and Booker (17 points) took turns bedeviling the Magic’s defense inside and out. Booker had five offensive rebounds, while Dinwiddie collected three off the offensive glass.
Terrence Ross (11 points) hit a 3-pointer with 13.7 seconds remaining to get Orlando within 122-121. However, Brooklyn’s Allen Crabbe sank two free throws to boost the Nets’ lead back to three.
Fournier’s potential tying 3-pointer with two seconds remaining was off line, sealing Orlando’s fate.
Vucevic topped his previous career high of 37 points set in April of 2015 against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Previously, he had made two 3-pointers in a game twice before in his career, but tripled that total on Friday by burying shots from all over the floor. His eight attempted threes were twice as many as he had ever tried in a game.
“A lot of my points just came off us playing together and I got some open looks early on and I just wanted to keep it up and help the team,’’ said Vucevic, who became the 12th player in Magic history to score at least 40 points in a game (Arron Afflalo, Nick Anderson, Vince Carter, Terry Catledge, Penny Hardaway, Dwight Howard, Tracy McGrady, Shaquille O’Neal, Victor Oladipo, Dennis Scott and Scott Skiles are the others).
“Obviously, I’d rather win this game – that would mean more,’’ Vucevic added. “But I’m glad the work that I put in (on his 3-point shot) is paying off. I’ll just keep trying to build upon it.’’
Orlando beat Miami 116-109 on Wednesday at the Amway Center and was trying to go 2-0 for the first time since the 2012-13 season. In the 28-plus year history of the franchise, the Magic have been 2-0 to open the season just seven times.
Orlando was without Gordon because of an injury that he suffered late in the second quarter of Wednesday’s win against Miami. Gordon, the Magic’s leading scorer in the preseason, tested out the ankle before the game, but decided that he was in too much pain to play.
Payton had four points and four assists in 14 first-half minutes, but he strained his left hamstring just before the intermission. His injury was severe enough to rule him out before the start of the second half, suggesting that he could be out for an extended period of time.
Down three at the half and having troubles at both ends of the floor, Orlando seemingly seemed poised to win the game with an inspiring third-quarter performance. They took a 91-89 lead into the fourth after Simmons drilled a 3-pointer just before the third-period horn. Vucevic was the backbone of the team just after halftime, drilling a fifth 3-pointer and scoring 11 points in the third period.
But it wouldn’t matter because of the Magic yielded 37 points in the decisive fourth quarter. A whopping 25 of those 37 points came from Brooklyn’s backup players.
“It’s tough, especially when most of those points come from offensive rebounds,’’ Orlando’s Ross said. “We just didn’t do a good job of limiting them to one shot and it bit us in the long run.’’
Orlando will be play its first of 15 back-to-backs on Saturday when it faces LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Cleveland. The Cavs will be in a similar situation having played in Milwaukee on Friday night. As if the prospect of playing twice in as many nights wasn’t already daunting enough, the Magic have dropped 17 games in a row to the Cavaliers. That’s the NBA’s longest active losing streak between two teams.
To end that unsightly streak, the Magic know that they must find a way to be better defensively. Clearly, their play at that end of the floor is still a work in progress – and something short-circuited by the losses of Gordon and Payton – but to turn things around Orlando must defend better starting with Saturday’s game against the Eastern Conference-champion Cavaliers.
“ It’s more of a trust thing (defensively) and we’re still trying to figure that out,’’ Ross said. “For the most part if we would have gotten those rebounds, limited them to one shot and pushed the pace more, we would have been OK. When we don’t get stops, we can’t run and when we can’t run they load up on defense.’’
Isaac was a bit more direct and to the point, saying the Magic must come into games with a mindset of playing tough, physical defense.
“We’ve just got to get tougher,’’ Isaac said. “We’ve got to want it more and hit (opposing) guys earlier and go get those boards.’’
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