In what's becoming a disturbingly familiar occurrance, the Orlando Magic built a solid lead against an inferior club Sunday against the Indiana Pacers, only to wilt in the fourth quarter and suffer defeat. Indeed, the Pacers, who entered Sunday's contest on a seven-game slide, outscored Orlando by a 31-17 margin in the final frame to knock off the Magic, 106-99, at Amway Center. Rookie forward Damjan Rudež led the comeback effort, scoring 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting in the fourth, with four treys to his credit.
"We just had some breakdowns defensively," said coach Jacque Vaughn of his team's fourth-quarter meltdown. "We're up nine, give up an open three to Rudež in front of their bench [because of poor] transition defense, and that kind of started three or four more threes to follow."
The loss marks Orlando's fifth straight. Here are the stories that developed after the dispiriting defeat.
Gordon solid in first start
Citing the rookie forward's "defensive prowess," Vaughn moved Aaron Gordon into the starting lineup for the first time in the Arizona product's young career. Gordon played solidly, but not spectacularly, in his first pro start, tallying nine points, four boards, and a block in 21 minutes.
Gordon, always composed, said before tipoff his pending start wouldn't faze him. "I just know we have to get off to a faster start," he said. "The past few games we've kinda put ourselves in a hole, so if we can get out on top in this game, it's gonna help us out in the long run."
Gordon indeed helped Orlando get off to a good start, recording a pair of free throws and an impressive chase-down block as the Magic built a 16-9 lead in the first five-plus minutes of the game. He later admitted he felt winded in his first stint, but felt okay in his conditioning.
"I thought overall he brought great energy to the game, to that first group," Vaughn said. Gordon's teammates agreed.
"We definitely felt his energy out there," said Elfrid Payton, another of Orlando's rookies. The point guard singled out Gordon's rebounding and work in the paint as two positives.
"When he comes in and plays like that, it's good for us," Victor Oladipo said.
Notably, Gordon didn't play at all in the fourth period as a result of logging 21 minutes over the first three. Vaughn termed his absence in the crucial final frame "huge" for Orlando, and one has to wonder if Rudež would have found the range so easily had Gordon, a versatile and engaged defender, matched up against him.
"I had to decide how many minutes I was going to play him, and to what extent," said Vaughn. "He reached the 20-minute mark, which is more than enough right now, and that's where we are."
Gordon was playing just his fourth game after missing nine weeks due to a broken bone in his left foot. The Magic will continue to monitor his minutes going forward.
As it did in Orlando's loss to Indiana in November, rebounding played a key role in Sunday's defeat. The Pacers held a 47-33 edge on the glass overall, and the Magic got only three offensive rebounds in 41 opportunities.
One can attribute part of that low total to the Magic's focus on transition defense, an area in which they've struggled during their losing streak. And, to the Magic's credit, they surrendered only six fast-break points to Indiana. Still, the Magic cannot win many games with the rebounding differential working against them to the degree it did Sunday.
"We need all five guys rebounding," Vaughn said before tipoff when reminded of Indiana's dominance on the glass against his club two months ago. That didn't happen: Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi, one of the league's bigger and more physical center rotations, outmuscled the Magic's bigs on nearly every possession, combining to corral 23 of the Pacers' 47 boards. Meanwhile, only Nik Vučević and Tobias Harris exceeded the five-rebound mark for Orlando, snaring seven boards apiece.
Vučević limited in fourth
One factor in Orlando's anemic final frame, in which it mustered only 17 points on 6-of-17 shooting: Vučević's lack of involvement offensively. The seven-footer didn't attempt a field goal in the fourth quarter after taking 17 in his first 27 minutes of action.
"I think on pick-and-rolls they stayed really with me," said Vucevic of the Pacers' defense. "They didn't help as much as they did early in the game."
Vučević and Payton established great pick-and-roll chemistry early on, but Mahinmi's defense helped shut it down late. The veteran big man kept at least one arm glued to Vučević on all his fourth-quarter picks and kept his base wide to slow Vučević's momentum to his rolls to the hoops or pops away from it.
And while the extra attention Indy paid Vučević helped Payton score in the lane--he shot 3-of-5 in the fourth for six points--it alone can't account for Vučević's disappearance. His teammates' failure to find him on the low block also has to factor into the discussion. By my admittedly unofficial count, Vučević got only one back-to-basket touch in the fourth quarter, drawing a foul as Mahinmi hacked him to prevent him from spinning baseline for a hook.