Having overcome a 23-point deficit, the Magic were seconds away from another impressive, confidence-building victory. And then the whistle blew.
Shelvin Mack, who on the previous possession had knocked down a floater to give the Magic a one-point lead with 31.5 seconds remaining, tied up Isaiah Thomas as he was driving the lane and was called for a shooting foul with 11.2 seconds left. The questionable call, which easily could have been ruled a jump ball, sent Thomas to the line, where he sank two free throws to give the Cavs a 104-103 lead.
Frank Vogel then elected not to call a time out so the defense could not get set. Elfrid Payton rushed down court and got to the rim but couldn’t convert a contested lay-up.
"I feel like 99 out of 100 I make that shot." -Elfrid Payton on his layup attempt with under one second to play— Josh Robbins (@JoshuaBRobbins) January 19, 2018
The ball was deflected out of bounds with 0.2 seconds left. After a review, the refs ruled there had been an inadvertent whistle, leading to a jump ball at half court. Aaron Gordon, taking the jump, grabbed the ball outright and then heaved a shot from just inside half court that went in but of course did not count.
Before placing all fault on the refs, it should be noted that, while the Magic deserve credit for putting themselves back in position to win against a far superior opponent, they have no one to blame other than themselves for the loss after such a dismal first half. With better effort, fewer turnovers and more rebounds in the first two quarters, the Magic perhaps would have enjoyed their first back-to-back victories since November 8 and November 10.
Nevertheless, it was certainly a strange ending to a strange game, in which the Magic resembled two different teams in each half.
With the Magic’s offense stagnant, the Cavs converted six of their 11 three-point attempts in the first quarter and took a 16-point lead into the second and a 20-point advantage into the half. Oh, and LeBron James delivered a perfect behind-the-back pass that went through the legs of Aaron Gordon to Dwyane Wade for the lay-in...
Behind a 20-3 run, powered by Jonathon Simmons, who scored 10 points in the third, as Orlando outscored the Cavs 33-17 in the quarter. The Magic pulled even at 80 in the final minute of the third after Simmons’ dunk in transition and a pair of free throws.
The Cavs responded with a 9-0 run before the Magic again chipped away.
The Magic cut the deficit to one on two occasions - after Bismack Biyombo calmly sank a pair of free throws and again when Evan Fournier converted a lay-up off a feed from Elfrid Payton. The Magic also had multiple opportunities to take the lead earlier than they ultimately did but Aaron Gordon missed some open threes and had a lay-up attempt rejected by Kevin Love, Fournier failed to converted on a good look at three, and Biyombo was whistled for a three-second violation with 1:02 remaining.
That set the stage for Mack’s go-ahead bucket, which gave the Magic their first lead, and ensuing foul, which quickly took it away.
Payton finished with 19 points and eight assists. Fournier and Gordon each had 17 points and Simmons added 16, including 6-for-8 from the free throw line. Biyombo had four points, 10 rebounds and two blocks and Khem Birch, who again got a bulk of the playing time at back-up center, had four points and four rebounds in 17 minutes. Mack had 10 points off the bench for the Magic, who were playing without Arron Afflalo after he was suspended two games for his altercation on Tuesday.
The Magic committed 14 turnovers (though the Cavs had 19) and made just five of their 22 three-point attempts (22.7 percent).
Thomas had 21 points to lead the Cavs, who snapped a four-game losing streak. James had 16 points, six assists and five rebounds. Kevin Love added 12 points and 11 rebounds and Derrick Rose, making his return from injury, had nine points.
Had the Cavs lost this game, giving them their ninth loss in their last 11 games, all hell may have broken loose in Cleveland. Had the Magic won, it would have given them a second straight win over one of the league’s elites.
They’ll face another on Sunday when they head to Boston for a matinee.