Beno Udrih and E'Twaun Moore - USA TODAY Sports
The Magic hung tough with one of the league's best offenses, but failed to execute on either end of the floor in the game's waning moments.
The Orlando Magic battled the Houston Rockets hard for most of Friday's game, and even looked like the better team for some of it, but fell apart offensively to fall by a 118-110 final. Tobias Harris led all players with 27 points off Orlando's bench, but Houston's balance was key in securing the win: the Rockets had seven players score at least nine points. James Harden's 24 points paced the visiting Rockets, who ended a two-game losing streak with Friday's victory.
The teams played evenly for much of the fourth quarter until backup point guard Patrick Beverley ignited an 11-0 Rockets run by drilling a three-pointer from the right wing. Harden followed that bucket with a fast-break layup, and on the next play Harden hit Chandler Parsons in stride for another fast-break bucket to give Houston a 105-100 lead.
After falling behind, 109-100, the Magic needed to call a 20-second timeout to reset their offense. The inbounds pass sailed into the backcourt for a violation, exemplifying the sort of carelessness and sloppy play which typified Orlando's closing moments. A three-pointer by Carlos Delfino gave Houston a 10-point edge with 2:22 to play. The ease with which Houston scored down the stretch made it hard to believe that neither team had led by more than four at any point in the fourth quarter until Parsons' fast-break conversion.
A fading jumper by E`Twan Moore made it a two-possession game at 112-107 with 1:13 to play, and Tobias Harris snared the rebound on Houston's next miss to give Orlando a fighting chance. But he and Nikola Vucevic missed layups on Orlando's ensuing possession, and the Magic ultimately turned it over as Arron Afflalo stepped on the sideline while trying to drive the ball.
Houston owns the league's fifth-best offense because it takes the right shots from the right places. The Rockets demonstrated that effectiveness from the opening tip, scoring 19 of their first 21 points on three-pointers, layups, or free throws. The Rockets space the floor for their hard-driving backcourt of Jeremy Lin and Harden, and helping defensively on those two exposes opposing teams to outside shots from the likes of Parsons and Donatas Motiejūnas. And while no one will ever mistake Ömer Aşik for an offensive powerhouse, his hard rolls to the paint after screening for the ballhandler require defensive attention.
None of these principles are complicated. On one first-quarter possession, Lin dribbled right-to-left off an Aşik screen, getting into the lane. He fired a simple pass to Motiejūnas in the left corner for a three. Orlando left Motiejūnas open again on Houston's next possession as Tobias Harris trailed Lin into the paint, but Motiejūnas did not make the Magic pay for that choice after popping to the right wing, as his triple-try missed the mark. That miss was Houston's first from beyond the arc in six attempts.
Andrew Nicholson kept Orlando's offense afloat early, shooting 3-of-4 from the floor for eight of the Magic's first 13 points. Though both he and Motiejūnas are rookies, his low-post offense is far more refined than Motiejūnas' defense, and he exploited that advantage to great effect.
After jumping out to a 14-4 lead through 2 minutes, 21 seconds, the Rockets cooled and Orlando got its act together offensively, drawing to within four points on a Maurice Harkless three-pointer in transition. Tobias Harris, who tallied the assist on the play, pumped his fist in celebration even before the shot dropped. A pair of foul shots from Nikola Vucevic tied the score moments later, and a floater from Harris gave Orlando its first lead at the 1:46 mark. When the quarter ended, Orlando held a 32-31 lead.
But Houston rallied back into the league in the second period on the strength of its prolific and accurate three-point shooting, with threes accounting for 15 of the Rockets' 33 points in the quarter. But the Magic executed their own offense well and created open shots of their own, keeping the score and tempo high. Harkless made two corner threes of his own as Orlando managed to stay within three of Houston at half. The power forward duo of Harris and Nicholson was instrumental, as the pair combined for 26 points on 16 shooting possessions before intermission.
Orlando continued to attack Houston's weak defense in the second half. Three straight shots right at the rim--a driving layup by Harkless, a post score by Nicholson, and a wide-open dunk by Harkless--prompted an incensed Kevin McHale to call timeout. Those buckets gave Orlando a 72-69 lead.
Houston responded to whatever McHale's message was in that timeout, going on an 11-5 run to regain the lead. The Rockets ran their offense through Harden, and Orlando decided to double-team him aggressively. That tactic didn't work; although it did force the ball out of the first-time All-Star's hands, it freed up the floor for the rest of Houston's shooters. Motiejūnas nailed another three-pointer during this stretch, and Harden popped in two long two-pointers of its own. Doubling high-scoring wing superstars on most teams might make sense, but Houston's spread offense makes that prospect fraught with peril. Orlando abandoned the double-team approach once Houston began giving Harden the ball in the middle of the floor, a sound adjustment by McHale and his staff.