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Blown defensive assignments, missed free throws, late game management. What happened to the Magic Friday night?

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Not the ideal beginning to Orlando’s final quarter of their ‘18-’19 campaign. What went wrong?

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Orlando Magic began their post-All-Star Break push towards a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference in gut-wrenching fashion, dropping a heart-breaker to the Chicago Bulls Friday night (110-109).

The mood inside Orlando's locker room after the game was a somber one, completely different than the excitement and jubilance that was seen in that room just a week ago.

“Tough loss man,” guard Evan Fournier said in front of his locker after the game. “Especially the first game after the break, we had momentum - five wins in a row. Tough one to swallow.”

The Magic entered play Friday night just one half-game out of the eighth-seed in the Eastern Conference, and in primed position to start a push towards the playoffs. That push was supposed to start with a win at home over the Bulls, who came to Orlando as a team 30 games below .500.

So what exactly went wrong Friday night for the Magic?

In somewhat surprising fashion, Orlando Head Coach Steve Clifford began his post-game press conference Friday night by taking full accountability (and then some) for his team’s loss to Chicago.

“There are a lot of factors that go into winning and losing (in this league),” Clifford told reporters. “I’ll tell you the same thing I just told the guys. You can say whatever - free throws, fouling, all that stuff. Nobody made a bigger mistake in that game than me.”

“I didn’t see that they put Lopez back in the game and we ended up too small out there. We ended up giving up an offensive rebound, that was as big of a possession as the foul, as big of a possession as the missed free throws,” Clifford added. “That is totally on me. If I look out there and see him (and get Vooch back in the game), we probably win the game. That is on me and it’s horrible game management.”

The play that Clifford is referring to happened late in the game, with 11.6 seconds remaining and the score tied. The Magic played really solid defense and forced Bulls guard Zach LaVine into a very difficult shot moving to his right (which he missed). However, Robin Lopez grabbed LaVine’s miss and layed the ball in to give the Bulls the lead (with Vucevic watching from the bench).

That was a big play the Bulls made, no doubt. And it’s a play that possibly could’ve been avoided if Nikola Vucevic was in the game - sure. But there’s no way that play was the deciding factor in the game, right?

“I don’t think it was the most significant one,” Vucevic said in the locker room after the game, when asked about Clifford taking blame. “We all made mistakes throughout the game that brought us to that point. But obviously, you respect when a coach takes accountability for a mistake like that. It shows that he’s not a bull-shitter, that he really means what he says.”

“At the same time, we as players have to do better,” Vucevic said. “It doesn’t come down to one play, there are things that we could’ve done better throughout the whole 48 minutes.”

“That’s the very first thing he said (when the team got back to the locker room),” Fournier added. “But we don’t lose on that play, we shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place.”

Fournier did hit a very clutch “three” on Orlando’s next offensive possession to give the Magic the lead, 109-108. Scoring 109 points in a game should be enough for this team to win.

Perhaps it wasn’t a play late in the game that undid the Magic Friday night, but instead a lack of defensive execution throughout the game, especially in the third quarter (the Bulls scored 38 points in the period).

“It was difficult, we made a lot of (defensive) mistakes,” Vucevic told reporters. “Things that we talked about yesterday and in shoot-around this morning, we just didn’t execute them. Throughout the whole game, just too many mistakes.”

“Those are all two-on-two coverage’s. There’s no rotations with a guy that shoots the ball like him,” Clifford added when asked about his team’s approach defending Lauri Markkanen, who scored a game-high 25 points for the Bulls Friday night. “That was the most disappointing part. To be honest with you, it was the only thing we did yesterday, we did drills specifically so that wouldn’t happen with him (and Porter, Jr.). And it was also the biggest emphasis this morning (at shoot-around). We’ve played them four times, and twice - the two times they’ve beat us - we’ve made too many mistakes (defensively).”

And while we’re looking back at reasons why the Magic may have dropped this game, it’s impossible not to recognize that Orlando missed a ton of free throws Friday night as well.
The 11 missed free-throws, in a game the Magic lost by one point, serve as the ultimate salt in Orlando’s now recently re-opened wounds.

“Our missed free throws, not just at the end, but the whole game...we’ve been a good free-throw shooting team,” Clifford said. “Whatever we were, like 13-24. That was the biggest factor. That’s more of a product of not playing for eight days. We’re not going to shoot 54% from the line many nights. If we do, we’re in trouble.”

The Magic ranked 9th in the NBA in free throw percentage, knocking-down just under 79% of their free-throws on the season, at the start of play Friday night (have since dropped to 12th). Point guard D.J. Augustin, who missed two crucial free throws last night with 34.0 seconds remaining and the game tied, is a career 86% free throw shooter.

“I don’t know what to tell you....maybe,” Fournier added when asked after the game about “rust” and all the missed free throws. “You know, when you look back at the game, we lost (because of) so many stuff. Free throws, the fouling, missed coverage on Markkanen. Yeah, it’s tough.”

Whatever the reason may have been, the Magic have to quickly recover from Friday night’s loss. The Charlotte Hornets and the Detroit Pistons, two teams the Magic are competing with for the 7th and 8th seeds in the Eastern Conference, both won their respective games Friday night against lesser competition.

Forgetting last night’s game will also be critical because the Magic will have their hands full in their next game Sunday in Toronto. The Raptors have won seven games in a row and sit one game behind the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference (and one game back of the top record in the league).

“Of course, it’s never easy anyway,” Fournier said when asked about how difficult this playoff push is going to be. “It is what it is, we lost a tough one tonight, but we have to move forward to be honest. There’s a lot of basketball left.”