For a time the Magic’s defensive lapses could be excused in any number of ways. A tough schedule, injuries, and rotation adjustments could all be blamed for the loss of what once looked like an elite defense. However, after yet another miserable night protecting the basket, falling 111-92 to the Atlanta Hawks, Orlando faces serious questions with a difficult January schedule ahead of them. Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton scored 15 apiece for Orlando, the latter entering the starting lineup the same night that Evan Fournier returned from a heel injury. The Hawks brought a balanced attack, with six scorers in double figures, led by 17 from Kent Bazemore, and a 13-12 double double from Howard.
The new starting lineup didn’t offer the best returns early on for the Magic, who looked lost on both ends of the court, barely conjuring any ball movement while allowing the Hawks freedom to take any shot they wanted, especially by the rim. At one point the score was Magic 7, Howard 7, as the Hawks led by as much as 8 in the quarter. It could have been much worse if not for Gordon’s early heroics, nailing two from long-range on the way to 10 points to lead all scorers. When the Magic brought in Vucevic and Fournier—and in the process, briefly reuniting their season-opening starters—they stabilized and eventually took the lead back. While the Hawks shot well, it was their turnovers that undid the lead they built, 7 giveaways leading to 10 points, who took a 26-23 lead.
As rough as the defense looked in the first quarter, it got much worse in the second, when Atlanta started to get hot from outside, hitting 3-5 from long range after missing both attempts in the first. Without more Hawks turnovers to fuel Orlando’s offense, the Magic sputtered in the halfcourt, turning the ball over while heavily relying on isos and postups to find shots. Atlanta quickly regained the lead and would push it as high as 9 before the Magic found a little life at the end of the half, culminating in a Vucevic 1-handed dunk, followed by two Vuc blocks on Dennis Schroeder. Despite a 55% to 45% shooting disadvantage, Orlando trailed by just 5, 52-47.
The downhill slide continued into the second half, when all semblance of offensive competence was lost. Orlando devolved into even more one-on-one basketball, with guys looking to create shots on their own without relying on their passing game to find good looks. The result was a miserable 8-23 shooting quarter. For a brief period, it looked like the Magic might recover, when a 50/50 block-goaltending call went Atlanta’s way after Gordon attempted to swat a Kent Bazemore layup. Orlando turned their frustration into production, getting all the way to within 4 with more of Gordon’s playmaking, but they quickly reverted to their worse form, and the lead ballooned again. Atlanta took their biggest lead so far into the fourth, 78-65.
The fourth started with a barrage of shots by both sides, at one point exchanging four straight 3-pointers. Eventually, Orlando started to claw back into it, getting the lead back to single-digits after a pair of Green free throws. The run extended all the way to 14-2 after a Fournier 3-pointer and a Payton layup pulled the game within 4. Orlando traded two Hawks baskets for another Fournier triple to keep the score within 5, but Atlanta quickly seized control of the game the rest of the way. At one point Orlando’s frustrations boiled over at a few questionable calls, leading to two Ibaka technicals within a few minutes of each other, and his ejection from the game.