Saturday night basketball featured the short-handed Magic travelling to take on the Pacers of Indiana. The home team themselves were also missing key rotation pieces, including their starting backcourt. The sides entered the contest just two games and two seeds apart in the Eastern Conference standings, with Orlando keen to exact some retribution for a recent loss in this return contest.
The Magic came out in the first with an obvious gameplan to keep things simple. The team ran a lot of two-man pick and roll action, putting the ball in Evan Fournier’s hands and letting him go to work. He had 5 points and a pair of assists in the game’s first five minutes, serving as Orlando’s primary offensive initiator. Defensively the team was active, with Jonathan Isaac needing just one possession to record his first steal (which lead to a fast break flush), and only a handful more to get his first block. Wes Iwundu also got his hands on the ball, while Khem Birch stepped in and drew an offensive foul on one of Indiana’s first forays into the paint.
When Steve Clifford turned to the bench they largely continued the style of play established by the starters. Mo Bamba was in early to spell Birch after he picked up a second foul, and despite some trouble handling the footwork and strength of Domantas Sabonis he was largely solid. He finished the quarter with 4 defensive rebounds, a block, and a charge drawn, as well as some energetic rim-running that lead to good things for the Magic on offense. With Terrence Ross doing his thing -- drawing fouls while shooting from deep -- and Markelle Fultz aggressive with his penetration Orlando were able to head into the first break with a 25-24 lead.
A sluggish start during the second stanza put the Magic in a hole. Defensive breakdowns and an inability to fight over screens allowed the Indiana shooters to get some wide open looks, with Doug McDermott and TJ Leaf both knocking down early triples. Bamba also struggled to contain Pacers rookie Goga Bitadze, who had six quick points in the period as he took advantage of the back-up big’s poor positioning and awareness. When Clifford mercifully called timeout at the 8:11 mark it was a 22-7 run in Indiana’s favour, and the Magic were facing an 8 point deficit, down 38-30.
Things didn’t get any better for Orlando after a tongue lashing from the coach. Outside of Fultz, whose probing and quick reads with the ball in hand generated some nice opportunities for his teammates, the Magic couldn’t really get much happening. The Pacers continued to score the ball efficiently, shooting 56% from the floor for the half, including a 5-11 mark from deep. They pushed their lead out to as much as 15 before a late Bamba surge, including one point-blank drop on the back of a sublime Fultz dish, cut the margin to 10 at the break, 45-55.
The third quarter started with a flurry of outside shooting for the Magic. Fultz was solid in controlling the tempo, routinely finding the open man. Fournier knocked one in on the side’s first shot attempt of the half, then Isaac caught fire. He connected from deep three times in the game’s next two minutes, pushing his individual tally to 20 for the night. However, the defense simply wasn’t there, with Birch getting gashed in the pick-and-roll and Fournier too easily ceding ground to the returning Jeremy Lamb. So while the team were able to keep pace offensively they had difficulty eating into the margin. A time out with 7:25 left to play in the period saw Orlando still trailing by 9, down 61-70.
Over the next three minutes the Magic got back into it. Fultz remained aggressive in his pursuit of points, and when Al-Farouq Aminu found a streaking Iwundu with a pinpoint bounce pass on the break the deficit was down to just 6. It only took two more possessions to wipe the rest of that away, with back-to-back triples from DJ Augustin and Ross knotting the game at 74 apiece. The two sides largely traded buckets and opportunities for the remainder of the quarter, before a late Fournier jumper ensured that Orlando would go into the final frame with a small lead, up 85-83 at the buzzer.
The Magic couldn’t maintain the momentum during the opening stretch of the fourth, with the defense in particular struggling. The side had difficulty slowing down Indiana’s penetration, which when added to some solid outside shooting and an incremental advantage in the free-throw game saw the Pacers start to take control. They turned a 2 point deficit into a 7 point advantage, which Orlando were able to whittle down to 3 with less than four minutes to play.
Things remained tight throughout crunch time, and pleasingly it was the Magic’s defense that provided them the chance they needed. Back-to-back steals leading to fastbreaks by Isaac and Fultz tied things at 106, before an Aaron Holiday triple -- of an offensive rebound and broken play -- put the Pacers back up by 3. Orlando would have one more chance to tie things up, but poor spacing on the inbounds pass resulted in Fournier’s pocket being picked from behind, and Indiana iced the game at the line. When the final siren sounded it was 111-106, with the Pacers picking up the win.
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: Jonathan Isaac — I wondered pregame if AG’s absence might be a boon for Isaac’s game, and after one contest that certainly appears to be the case. JI dropped a career-high 25 points to go along with 9 boards, 4 steals, 2 blocks, and 4 triples. Things are most certainly happening for the young man.
Second star: Evan Fournier — The sweet-shooting two-guard stepped up as the primary option for the short-handed Magic, racking up 26 points to go along with 3 assists and 4 makes from deep. Unfortunately he wasn’t as effective in the fourth quarter, but that shouldn’t take away too much from what was a solid night.
Third star: Third quarter three-point shooting — The Magic turned this game around in the third period, powering their way to 40 total points on the back of 8-12 shooting from behind the arc. Going forward Orlando will want to see more shooting stretches like this one.
Ultimately, this was a tough loss, even with two starters and a key bench player sitting out. They were doomed by their inability to execute down the stretch, as well as poor defensive stretches that eventuated throughout. The loss drops the Magic to 0-6 on the road, with another away game looming in Detroit on Monday. Let’s hope the team shows more poise in that one.