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Orlando’s defensive effort, normally a strength, let them down against Indiana

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Orlando Magic Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Orlando Magic entered play Sunday night ranked in the top-5 in the NBA in defensive rating, opponent points per game, and opponent effective field goal percentage (eFG%).

It’s been quite the struggle on the offensive end for the Magic through ten games this season, but they’ve been able thus far to rely upon their defense to keep them in games. In Orlando’s three wins in ‘19-’20, the Magic have held their opponent to under 90 points in each contest - something relatively unheard of in today’s NBA culture of scoring/offense.

So it was a bit surprising on Sunday evening when the Magic gave up over 28 points or more in three of the four quarters against the Pacers, who have a middle-of-the-pack NBA offense (and were playing without starters Myles Turner and Jeremy Lamb).

“It seemed like Indiana was getting whatever they wanted,” Aaron Gordon said in the locker room after the game. “I think it’s just a lack of energy, a lack of focus, and it was disappointing for sure. This is definitely a game that we needed.”

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Orlando Magic Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Two things in particular that Coach Steve Clifford mentioned in his pregame conference prior to Sunday’s contest seemed to really hurt the Magic as the game played out: Malcolm Brogdon’s decision making with the basketball, and T.J. Warren’s mid-range “floater” game.

“He’s off to a great (start) - 22/3/9.9 assists. I think he’s like fifth or sixth (in the league) in drives into the paint,” Clifford said of Brogdon before his team’s contest against the Pacers. “His pick-and-rolls, just like he did last year in Milwaukee, just driving the ball. He’s strong, he’s very clever. He’s great at changing speeds and he doesn’t need a lot of room. When he gets in there, he can score, he can get fouled. He makes the right play.”

Brogdon was defended for most of the game by Evan Fournier, who seemed to really struggle keeping Brogdon in front of him. Like Clifford prefaced, Brogdon led Indiana’s pick-and-roll offensive attack flawlessly against the Magic, scoring 19 points and dishing out 8 assists.

Clifford also recalled before the game how newly acquired Indiana forward T.J. Warren hurt the Magic numerous times last season in an early season home loss to the Phoenix Suns. Warren scored 19 points Sunday, with 16 of those points coming in the mid-range (many on the exact type of “floaters” that Clifford forewarned about).

“I’ll tell you - I’m surprised,” Clifford said after the game. “I thought we would...we played a good, energetic first half and we had nothing those last 24 minutes.”

In a complete reverse script from what has played out so far in ‘19-’20, it was actually Orlando’s shooting Sunday that kept them in the game. Orlando enjoyed a double-digit lead in the second quarter, and finished the game knocking down 15 three-point attempts. Orlando entered play ranked last in the NBA in just about every offensive shooting/scoring statistic.

What really set the Magic back was how flat they came out of halftime. Orlando held a nine point advantage heading into the break, but Indiana quickly erased that with a 12-0 run to begin the third quarter.

“They definitely changed the course of the game in that third quarter,” Fournier said in front of his locker Sunday night. “They were just being really aggressive and they made plays. I give them credit, but we definitely did not play with the energy that we needed to. We started great but that third quarter really cost us the game.”

“We have to do a better job coming out at the half and we’ve got to get ourselves ready at halftime,” Gordon added. “We’ve just got to do a better job (coming out of halftime) and making sure that we set the tone going into the first five minutes of the second half.”

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Orlando Magic Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Two guys who particularly hurt the Magic in the second half were reserves Doug McDermott and T.J. McConnell. McDermott scored 18 points (25 minutes) in Orlando, ten of those coming in the second half. And McConnell took over the game in the fourth quarter, scoring six points and dishing out four assists in the game’s final period (12 points, 8 assists total in 19 minutes).

“The two most important players in the game (in my opinion) were McConnell and McDermott,” Clifford said after the game during his post-game conference. “We had talked about that in the shoot-around - they had been getting really good bench play and those two guys drilled us.”

All-in-all, the Magic eclipsed the 100-point mark for the third-straight game (only third time this season), but wasted their offensive output due to a lack of defensive energy and attention. The 109 points Indiana scored are the second-most given up by Orlando this season.

“That’s disappointing for sure,” Fournier said. “That was a much needed game for sure. We have a five-game home stretch, we’ve got to take these wins. We have a tough game coming up too; this is definitely a very disappointing loss.”

“Coach always says that you get what you deserve in this league,” Gordon told reporters. “And tonight, we definitely didn't deserve to win.”

In defeat, Vucevic reaches a milestone

Lost in what resulted as Orlando’s seventh defeat of the early season, Magic center Nikola Vucevic reached a significant milestone Sunday, moving into third-place on Orlando’s all-time scoring list.

I asked Vucevic after the game about his accomplishment:

“It means a lot, the names on that list, to surpass those guys (who had great careers playing for the Magic and great careers in general) - it means a lot,” Vucevic said. “I’m glad I was able to do that, to be able to stay here for a long time and achieve that. It’s humbling, it’s a great achievement and I’m proud of it. Hopefully I can keep moving up the ladder and keep getting higher and higher (on the list), and I’ll have my name on the all-time Magic list forever.”

Vucevic (8,299 career points in Orlando) surpassed all-time Magic great Tracy McGrady (8,298 career points with the Magic), and now trails only Nick Anderson (2nd) and Dwight Howard (1st) on Orlando’s all-time franchise scoring list.