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Rockets 103, Magic 98: Orlando shows flashes early, Harden cooks late

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After leading most of Sunday night’s contest, a familiar late-game collapse did the Magic in.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The Orlando Magic traveled to Houston on Sunday night to take on the surging Rockets, who were led by MVP candidate James Harden. Though the Magic were in control for most of the game and led by 15 as late as midway through the third quarter, there was too much James Harden and not enough Magic leadership down the stretch.

Things looked promising early, as the Magic jumped out to a 34-18 lead after the first quarter. Orlando dominated the glass during that period, led by veteran center Nikola Vucevic, who would go on to finish with 19 points and 17 rebounds, eight of which were offensive.

Though the Magic lead would ebb and flow, they were able to answer each Houston run with solid performances on offense by Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, and Evan Fournier in a bounce-back effort.

The wheels came totally off in the fourth, as the Magic only mustered 16 points. A quarter like that would leave the Magic dead in the water against an average NBA team, but for a team like the Rockets, it was especially crippling.

When the Magic began to falter, James Harden smelled blood, scoring three-straight baskets for a total of seven points to propel the Rockets from tied to up five. From there, they never looked back, easily cruising to the five-point win. Harden would finish with 40 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists.

In a game where the Magic needed just a little bit more, no one stepped up to make it happen. Though Orlando’s “big three” of Vucevic, Fournier, and Gordon did the heavy lifting for most of the game, they had no answers when the game got tight and their team desperately needed a bucket.

Even more worrisome in this sport that can be won or lost by such a narrow margin, the bench did not have a good day against a Houston team that is known as a one-man show. The usually bouncy and energetic Terrence Ross was a -28 on the night, and thoughts go out to coach Steve Clifford, who had to decide between that version of Ross and Evan Fournier coming off of a 1/10 shooting night against the Wizards.

Nothing summed up the Magic’s night quite like D.J. Augustin’s struggles at the line, however. Augustin’s free-throw shooting has been one of the few constants on the Magic since he joined the roster before the 2016 season. He was shooting 89 percent coming into the game, and inexplicably missed five of his seven attempts on the night, equaling the exact total that the Magic lost by. That’s certainly not the cause of the loss, but once again, on a night that the Magic needed something from anyone, no one answered the bell.

The Orlando Magic dropped to 20-30 with that loss, and now have a considerable gap to cover if they want to reach the eight seed, which is currently occupied by the 23-25 Charlotte Hornets. They will look to turn that momentum around against the Thunder at home on Tuesday at 7:00 ET.