In many ways, the Charlotte Hornets are what the current Magic aspire to be. Much like the Magic, they have an excellent defensive coach in Steve Clifford. Unlike the Magic, they also have some offensive firepower thanks to their All-Star caliber point guard Kemba Walker, and excellent 2-way play from Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Those three combined for 41 points in just 75 combined minutes through 3 quarters, and the Magic suffered their second blowout loss in as many games, falling 109-88 on the road. Evan Fournier led the Magic with 14 points on 6-11 shooting. Nikola Vucevic was able to play after suffering an eye injury on Wednesday, wearing goggles for protection, but he struggled with a 3-10 shooting night.
The start of the first quarter was rough on both ends, especially offensively. The score was tied at just 2-2 more than two minutes into the game, but Charlotte found some rhythm attacking the Magic with drives and midrange jumpers, particularly from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. After the Magic went down 12-3, Fournier was forced to sit after getting in foul trouble, and Frank Vogel turned to Green off the bench, resulting in a bizarre, super-big lineup with Augustin, Green, Gordon, Ibaka, and Biyombo. That group, and the bench lineup with Vucevic and Payton after them, were able to get the Magic back into the game. Though the Magic wouldn’t make a field goal until over five minutes into the quarter, they got hot right after, making 5 of 6 shots to bring the game within 2. Biyombo, playing for just the second time against the team that drafted him, led the Magic in scoring early with 7 points, including an improbable jumper after a broken play. Thanks to the strong play of the bench, the Magic managed to take the lead at the end of the quarter, 21-20.
Charlotte’s bench is known for their high scoring, and it took them just over half the second quarter to match their total from the first quarter. The scoring came all over the court, with five different bench players accounting for 15 points in just the first seven minutes. Orlando, on the other hand, continued to do what they’ve done all season with the basketball: not get it in the basket. That combination, along with some poor defensive rebounding for Orlando, let the Hornets take a 10 point lead, and later an 11-point lead. MKG was the star of the first half, getting 14 points by driving into the teeth of the defense and pulling up for tough jumpers. Ibaka led the Magic in the first half with 12, including 2-3 shooting from behind the arc. At the end of the quarter, the Magic were able to rally thanks to a few baskets by Gordon, including one Nowitskian knee-hike fadeaway on the baseline. They went into halftime down 6, 52-46.
The Magic’s defense didn’t improve any in the third quarter, when they let the Hornets burn them from downtown, especially on offensive rebounds. Through the third quarter, the Hornets made four 3-pointers off of offensive boards alone. Throw in the regular three pointers they made on top of those, a recipe was brewing for a blowout. Orlando was able to hang tough for a while with a few timely shots of their own, but toward the end of the quarter things got out of hand in a hurry. A Marco Bellinelli fastbreak layup pushed the lead all the way to 19. The Magic fought back with some Payton drives, but at the end of the quarter the Hornets took advantage of a Vucevic back injury to hit yet another 3-pointer in the 4-on-5 situation and take their biggest lead of the night going into the 4th quarter, 91-70.
The prospects of a fourth quarter were always a long shot, but the Magic suffered several injuries that kept Vucevic, Biyombo, and Green out for most of the rest of the game. With eight minutes left, Vogel called in the backups. Damjan Rudez led the Magic with 9 points in garbage time, while Hezonja was able to knock one down from long range.
In many ways, the loss to the Hornets was a repeat of their previous loss to the Celtics on Wednesday. While the team was able to compete in the first half thanks to some timely shooting, thing fell apart in the third quarter thanks to low energy on both ends of the court, poor defensive communication, and a complete inability to make shots. It’s unclear if the problems are because of the schedule or lack of practice (Orlando hasn’t held a practice since the Memphis game), but the team has lost its defensive intensity over the last three games.