The Orlando Magic lost their third straight game Wednesday, falling to the Detroit Pistons, 128-118, in a game they never led. Brandon Jennings and Greg Monroe blitzed Orlando: Jennings finished with 24 points and 21 assists, with two turnovers, while Monroe shot 11-of-16 for 24 points of his own. Jennings' assist figure represents a career-best for him, as well as the second-most assists a player has dished against Orlando in a single game. Kyle Singler made four treys, keeping the Magic's defense honest by spreading the floor for Jennings. Andre Drummond excelled as well, scoring 26 points and grabbing 16 boards in just 30 minutes.
Nik Vučević led Orlando with 26 points and 13 rebounds, while Victor Oladipo scored 23. After a five-game injury absence, Tobias Harris shook off some rust in his return to the floor, shooting just 6-of-14 for 17 points off the bench, though his 14 points in the fourth period helped spark an unlikely Orlando run.
Detroit established itself early, hitting six of its first seven shots en route to building a 14-6 lead less than four minutes into the game. A key factor for the Pistons: their ability to keep the floor spread, letting Jennings operate in the pick-and-roll. Monroe did his part by running the floor and hitting the offensive glass, scoring 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting to help the host club build a 35-24 lead.
The Magic have the tools, it would seem, to play sound defensively as a unit, but have yet to put it together: time and again, Jennings got into the lane unimpeded, enabling coach Stan Van Gundy's team to get whatever it wanted.
At the other end, the Magic attempted to run--as has been their wont of late--but struggled to adapt to their newish style: on at least two occasions, Orlando guards put too much mustard on passes intended for a trailing Vučević, resulting in turnovers. And when the Pistons got back and established its defense, Orlando too often went to isolations, or otherwise failed to move the ball enough to keep them off balance.
The Magic did well to close the gap in the second period, as Luke Ridnour's floater at the 3:48 mark drew to Orlando to within 10; the veteran's hestiation dribble froze Detroit's defense just long enough for him to create open space for him to loft the ball in. Less than a minute later, Oladipo drove for a layup, cutting Detroit's lead to six.
But the Pistons answered the Magic's 6-0 run in emphatic fashion: Van Gundy brought Jennings and Monroe back into the game, and they imposed their will on it. Detroit closed the half on a 13-2 run to build its lead to 17, its largest of the night at that juncture. Monroe scored eight points in that stretch, all of them within the painted area, and drew a charge on Oladipo as well.
The Magic tried to get Channing Frye more involved in the third period, a worthy endeavor, given that he wasn't credited with a single shot attempt in the first half; he released a three-pointer early in the game, but the official scorer gave Vučević the shot at the time. Frye drilled two three-pointers and a long deuce in the opening minutes of the third period, giving Orlando a bit of a lift, but Jennings got hot at the other end to keep the visitors at arm's length. The southpaw point guard scooped in a layup and drew a foul at the 6:37 mark, with that three-point play putting Detroit back up by 16.
Oladipo asserted himself with two layups and a long three-pointer to keep Orlando afloat in the latter stages of the third, but the Magic's defense continued to wilt: Detroit reached the 90-point mark with 2:58 to play in the period as Jennings muscled Oladipo out of the way en route to another uncontested layup, bringing his individual total to 17 points. Indeed, the Magic's comeback hopes hinged not upon their offense, but rather on their defense. Put another way, the Magic ought to be in good shape when they manage 84 points through three periods on the road, as they did Wednesday. But they still trailed by 12.
The Magic made their run in the opening stages of the fourth period: they forced Monroe to miss two shots on one possession--or one more miss than he had in the previous three periods combined--and then got Harris an and-one bucket in transition, cutting Detroit's lead to 11. The Magic scored in transition on their next two possessions to draw to within seven and, for the first time on the night, had the Pistons on their heels.
Another Harris and-one brought Orlando to within two points at the 7:31 mark, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope responded with a four-point play to give the Pistons a bit of breathing room, 102-96.
The Magic continued to feed off their defense as they chipped away at Detroit's lead. Most often the runouts off Detroit misses and forced turnovers produced efficient shot attempts, but the Magic had the occasional turnover, a sign of a young club adapting to a faster style of play.
Another mistake cost Orlando dearly at the 4:30 mark: Jennings and Anthony Tolliver ran a pick-and-pop on the right side of the floor, with Payton covering Jennings and Harris on Tolliver. As Jennings scooted left around the screen, Harris switched onto him, but Payton stayed with the point guard, leaving Tolliver--a 37.1 percent three-point shooter on the season--unattended on the wing. Jennings made the easy pass and Tolliver drained the trey, putting Orlando in a nine-point hole and prompting Jacque Vaughn to call for time.
Less than a minute of game time later, Jodie Meeks swished a three-pointer out of the right corner in transition off a feed from Jennings, restoring the Pistons' lead to 14.
The Magic would never draw closer than 12 the rest of the way. Their inspired play in the fourth quarter--turnovers aside--offered a glimpse into what they're capable of when they push the pace, but their struggles defensively through the first three quarters offered yet more evidence that this young club has a long way to go before it reaches respectability.