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Oklahoma City Thunder 105, Orlando Magic 102

 Mandatory Credit: Douglas Jones-US PRESSWIRE
Mandatory Credit: Douglas Jones-US PRESSWIRE

The Orlando Magic led the Western Confence-leading Oklahoma City Thunder for much of Thursday's contest, but fell short in the fourth quarter due to shoddy defense and brilliant play from All-Star MVP Kevin Durant, who scored 18 of his 38 points in the period to knock off the Magic, 105-102. The Thunder shot a blistering 10-of-15 from the field during the fourth quarter, and 12-of-14 from the foul line, to fight back into the game and ultimately prevail. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy even resorted to using a zone defense on two Thunder possessions, only to watch lightly-regarded reserve guard Royal Ivey and Durant drain triples; Van Gundy's squad switched back to man defense for the rest of the game.

For three quarters, Orlando moved the ball brilliantly and executed crisply, building a lead that stretched to as many as 14 points. Dwight Howard dominated the third quarter in particular, scoring 16 of his team-high 33 points on 8-of-10 shooting in the period. The Thunder, who rank 14th in the NBA in points per possession allowed, couldn't keep Howard from establishing deep post position, and Orlando's complementary players did an excellent job delivering him the ball. Make no mistake: Orlando looked every bit the part of an offensive juggernaught for the first 36 minutes of Thursday's contest.

But the Thunder, on the second night of an all-road back-to-back, turned the game in the fourth, ratcheting up the defensive intensity to such a degree that the Magic struggled to even get shots up, let alone good ones. And at the offensive end, the combination of Durant and reserve swingman James Harden, the runaway favorite for the league's Sixth Man of the Year Award, proved too much to handle. Harden got his by leaking out in transition, including one spectacular double-crossover and one-handed jam past a backpedaling Howard. Durant, meanwhile, did his thing in the halfcourt. The Thunder gave him the ball, spread out, and let him go to work. That's all she wrote.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Thunder 89.7 117.1 56.8% 28.4 24.3 14.5
Magic 89.7 113.8 53.0% 15.5 27.0 13.4
Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.

Thursday's result highlighted what's been the Magic's biggest weakness since its trip to the NBA Finals in 2009: its lack of a go-to shot-creator, someone who can go one-on-five and get a decent look at the rim up. Few players have Durant's skill, and it'd be foolish to suggest Orlando absolutely needs a player of Durant's caliber in order to compete with the league's elite, but it needs someone with the same skill-set. It helps to explain why the Magic have ramped up their efforts to acquire Monta Ellis from the Golden State Warriors in recent days.

A big key to Oklahoma City's fourth-quarter defensive stand was its handling of Jameer Nelson. Orlando's starting point guard shot 1-of-4 from the floor in the period, and though he did dish three of his team-high nine assists in the final 12 minutes, he simply wasn't enough of a factor. Westbrook kept Nelson in check, which in turn limited what the Magic can do offensively.

Another problem, perhaps related to the one outlined in the first paragraph after the fold, is this: no Magic player, save for Howard, looked particularly eager to shoot in the fourth period. Who is this team's go-to player? Nobody, not even the players on the team, seems to know. And without establishing who will play that role, or acquiring someone to play that role, Orlando will continue to struggle against the league's top teams.

Having said all that, offense was just one of the Magic's problems in that atrocious fourth quarter: defensively, they stunk too. Containing Durant is no easy task, and he did make some truly incredible shots--this toss, off one foot, with Hedo Turkoglu defending closely as the shot-clock expired is just unreal--but to attribute the Thunder's victory solely to luck is to deny them agency and to excuse the Magic for poor defensive play. It's no accident the Thunder won this game, and credit them for battling back, one minute at a time, on both ends of the floor.

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