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Pistons 120, Magic 115: Road woes continue as Magic falter in OT

The Magic shot the lights out in the first half, but saw their bucket-making abandon them when it was needed most

NBA: Orlando Magic at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando entered tonight’s showdown in ninth place in the Eastern Conference and with an upcoming schedule that looked pretty winnable. However, recent road ills loomed large, with the hope being that the home wins over Houston and Boston had gotten the team back on track. Ultimately it was an up and down performance, and one that perfectly encapsulates the Jekyll and Hyde nature of this team. Let’s look at how it unfolded.

The first quarter started out awkwardly, with both teams trading possessions that lacked fluidity and featured poor execution. Luckily for the Magic their shot was true, and despite some tough looks they were able to regularly convert and get out to an early lead. Evan Fournier and D.J. Augustin combined for 11 points and 3 assists in the quarter, the team shot 75% (including 4-8 from deep), and some energetic defensive efforts produced a handful of fast break points.

The early play of the bench is also worth mentioning. Terrence Ross came out and drilled two absolutely pure triples in the first, including one from the car park. Wes Iwundu had some nice opportunistic baskets, while Isaiah Briscoe was dogged on defense and aggressive on offense. As a unit they outscored their Pistons counterparts 14-zip in the period, helping push Orlando out to 34-26 lead at the end of 12.

Ross kept it cooking during the second, adding another 9 to his personal tally and almost single-handedly keeping the Magic in front as the team’s shooting percentages came back to earth a little (seriously, only a little - they finished the half at 67%!). Some sloppy play -- careless turnovers (8 in the half) and blown defensive assignments -- allowed Detroit to tie things up in the half’s final minutes, before a strong sequence of offensive possessions from Nikola Vucevic (who had 15, 4 and 3 at the break) helped them stretch things back to a 5 point buffer at the buzzer.

Orlando’s offense during the first half should have been enough to push them out to a sizeable lead at the break. However, a few key shortcomings ensured things were closer than they should have been. Detroit had basically all of their points from three spots on the floor: in the paint, behind the arc, or from the charity stripe. The Magic had a hard time containing Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond inside, while their shooters routinely got open thanks to defensive miscommunications or simple ball-watching. The key areas for improvement were obvious.

Second halves have presented some difficulty for the Magic this season, particularly on the recent West Coast road trip where the team coughed up a number of sizeable leads. Last weekend’s home back-to-back provided some cause for optimism in this regard though, as in both games they easily outpaced their highly-fancied opposition after the halftime oranges. Would this new and improved Orlando outfit be the one to emerge from the locker room for the start of the third quarter?

Answer: no. As a team they shot just 8 of 23 during the third quarter, with a lot of possessions stagnating and finishing with ineffective one-on-one attempts. Worryingly, the defense remained just as porous as it had been during the second quarter, with a steady diet of wide open threes and Griffin backdowns allowing Detroit to outscore Orlando by 11 in the term.

Down 90-84 entering the final quarter, the Magic continued to see a lot of the same errors plague their game. However, they were able to get back into it behind, of all things, two corner threes from Jonathan Isaac. They closed the gap to 4 with a little over 5 minutes to play, but another nice finish by Luke Kennard (seriously) and an emphatic swat by Drummond momentarily stemmed Orlando’s push. Still, with time left they would have one final chance to respond.

And respond they did, primarily behind the play of All-Star hopeful Vucevic. He drilled a long three, got busy in the pick and roll with his dance partner Augustin, and then threw down a nasty dunk after blowing by a Drummond close out. He did miss a 19-footer that gave the ball back to the Pistons for one final possession, but he was open and in rhythm so it’s understandable why he let fly. Thankfully for Vooch and the Magic Griffin missed a mid-range fade-away as time expired. The teams headed for overtime with 109 apiece.

Sadly, Orlando’s shooting completely abandoned them during the bonus basketball session. The team couldn’t get anything to go, failing to hit a shot outside of two early monster triples from -- who else? -- Ross. The final score was 120-115, with the teams flopping positions in the Eastern Conference standings as a result.

Orlando’s three stars

Hockey is a pretty great sport, so I thought I would steal one of its best little touches for my own game analysis: the three stars. Here is who caught my eye tonight.

First star: Terrence Ross — The 24 points, first-half circus shots, and OT bombs are easy enough to point to as evidence of a solid game, but T-Flight also had contributions elsewhere, including some big rebounds, blocks and steals down the stretch. An excellent game from the sixth-man.

Second star: Nikola Vucevic — He missed a potential game winner and faded badly in overtime, but otherwise had a really good game. He finished with 24, 13 and 3, and was responsible for a couple of superb offensive stretches that kept the Magic in the game.

Third star: Aaron Gordon — His box score numbers don’t pop off the page, but this was just a solid effort from AG at both ends of the court. He was also the only Magic player who was in any way effective at slowing down Griffin.

Astoundingly, this was the fifth-straight road game during which the Magic choked away a double digit lead. They were out by as many as 11 at one stage, let the Pistons build their own 11-point advantage, roared back to take a late lead, before ultimately fizzling and going down by 5. Honestly, it’s one they should have won, and that if they’re serious about a playoff push they’ll look back on ruefully. They’ll look to get back on track at home against Brooklyn on Friday. We’ll catch you all back here then when the ball tips!