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Suns 98, Magic 94: Orlando lose a heartbreaker in the desert

Devin Booker buries a pair of late triples to send the Suns past Fultz, Fournier and the Magic

NBA: Orlando Magic at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Kicking off a six-game road trip, Orlando came into Phoenix in possession of the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed and looking to shore that spot up. They were dealt a blow to those hopes before tip-off, with both Aaron Gordon and DJ Augustin being ruled out and joining a long list of key players on the sideline. Injuries would make this a tough assignment.

The patchwork starting five got off to a slow start, exhibiting clunkiness on offense while allowing the Suns to build an early 7-0 lead. There was an obvious level of unfamiliarity between the players, with both Khem Birch and Wes Iwundu looking out of place when the team was on the attack. As a result the Magic simplified things, leaning heavily on two-man action featuring the veteran pairing of Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic. Markelle Fultz also dialed up the intensity, and after he made a pair of free-throws the teams went to the game’s first time-out knotted up at 13 apiece.

As the quarter progressed Vucevic was able to capitalize on a handful of mismatches in the post, a fact which kept Orlando’s points total ticking over. However, when substitutions called there was a risk that the Magic’s inexperience -- with G League callup Josh Magette and little-used Amile Jefferson playing alongside Iwundu, Mo Bamba and Terrence Ross -- would see them playing from behind. Pleasingly this wasn’t the case, with Ross putting the ball through the basket just often enough to ensure the team were only down 27-25 at the first break.

Points were hard to come by for the Magic in the opening minutes of the second quarter. The offense again looked discombobulated, missing 4 straight shots before a Ross triple broke the drought. Still, there was a real lack of penetration and off-ball movement evident, resulting in a lot of contested shots out of isolation and low-percentage mid-range jumpers. Once Phoenix were able to string together a few baskets -- a Rubio-to-Ayton alley-oop, an Oubre triple, a pair of Baynes free-throws, and a Johnson jumper -- the deficit threatened to balloon. Fournier, however, would have none of that: he started by converting an and-one ayup when the Suns defense failed to rotate, added a step-back on Baynes with an expiring shot clock, and capped it by turning an almost-turnover into an assist for a Birch bucket and foul. Phoenix were forced to call timeout with 5:46 remaining in the half and the Magic back within a basket, down just 40-38.

Orlando would have felt good about their chances on the back of this and with the other starters reentering, but things didn’t play to their intended script. Devin Booker simply took over during this stretch, either scoring or assisting on every Phoenix basket over the quarter’s final six minutes. He had 11 points and 3 assists as the Suns built a double-digit lead, taking his personal tally to 16 and 5 at intermission. Kelly Oubre chipped in 13, while Ricky Rubio had 6 assists. For the Magic, they were paced by Fultz’s 13 and 3, along with Fournier and Ross who both had a dozen.

Down 58-48 to start the third, Orlando continued to find the sledding on offense difficult. Vucevic was able to get a couple close to the basket to go, but otherwise ball movement was stagnant as the team settled for a lot of one-on-one possessions. Luckily for the Magic their defense was solid, with Phoenix unable to capitalise and extend their advantage. A stretch featuring a pair of Oubre airballs coupled with a pair of Ross steals allowed Orlando to bridge the gap, and when Fournier drilled a pair of free-throws they had their first lead of the night, up 69-68 with a shade over five minutes to play in the quarter.

When Fultz picked up his fourth foul on a dubious interaction with Rubio he joined a similarly foul-trouble plagued Iwundu on the bench, the game’s complexion threatened to shift. Orlando sputtered through three scoreless minutes before a Ross jumper got things heading in the right direction, but thanks to the team’s solid defense (and poor outside shooting by the Suns) they were able to stay in touch. A pair of free-throws from Iwundu and a smooth hesitation dribble-drive from Ross once again locked the score up, before a late Deandre Ayton hook shot gave the Suns a 77-75 lead heading into the final frame.

Fournier continued his hot second half by drilling a triple to open proceedings in the fourth, and when Magette unintentionally banked in his own three-point make the Magic found themselves up by 4. Over the next few minutes the teams largely traded turnovers and ugly misses; in fact, when the Suns called time out with 6:22 remaining there had only been 3 made baskets in the quarter total. It was Orlando in the lead, 82-81 as the game wound its way towards a conclusion.

The closing minutes were an arm wrestle, with neither team able to seize the ascendancy. The Magic did a great job of taking Booker out of the game, limiting him to just 2 points in the second half and subjecting him to a pretty strip-and-drive by Fournier. However, the team had trouble containing Rubio, who was able to carefully navigate high screens and find Ayton close to the hoop on the other end. When he found a cutting Oubre for a slam Orlando’s deficit was 3, a gap they overcome with a Vooch triple and a split pair of free-throws by Fournier. The Magic ratcheted up the defensive pressure on the next few possessions, before another Fultz-Vucevic pick-and-pop three-pointer pushed their lead to 94-90. Things were looking good.

And then they weren’t. Booker finally got loose for a long-range make, cutting the difference to a single point. Things got worse from there, with Fultz throwing an ill-advised pass from the paint that was intercepted by a streaking Booker, who calmly hit a transition three to give Phoenix the lead. Orlando called timeout and managed to get Vooch posted up on the mismatched Booker, but Rubio dug down and dislodged the ball before getting fouled and making one of two from the line. Advantage Suns, 97-94 with 15.2 seconds to play.

Orlando had one final chance to tie the game, but Fournier forced a tough triple from the top of the arc looking for contact. The whistles remained silent, and Phoenix iced it at the free-throw line. A game that was there for the taking literally slipped away in less than a minute.

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: Evan Fournier — Was great all night long, even if he didn’t deliver in the clutch. Played great defense on Booker in the second half, and finished with 28 points, 3 rebounds and 3 steals.

Second star: Markelle Fultz — Although he made a couple of poor plays in the game’s final minute, it shouldn’t totally overshadow what was a strong performance. Put up a personal tally of 15, 6 and 6, and for long stretches of the first half looked like the Magic’s most dangerous player.

Third star: Nikola Vucevic — Had a poor shooting night but stuck with it and made two huge threes down the stretch to give the Magic a chance. His defense was also generally solid and he rebounded effectively.

The road trip continues Monday night in Sacramento, where the Magic will look to put this one behind them and get back in the winners column. It’s uncertain whether reinforcements are on the way, so they’ll need to look to internal improvement and better execution first.