A game to be played between the Orlando Magic and the Los Angeles Clippers was one of the last things on players, coaches, and basketball fans minds’ this evening after news broke that NBA legend Kobe Bryant tragically died in a helicopter accident Sunday afternoon.
But a game was played nonetheless. The Los Angeles Clippers took advantage of some cold Orlando shooting in the third quarter to build enough of a lead to ultimately defeat the Magic 112-97 Sunday evening.
Both locker rooms were closed off from the media prior to the contest to allow players and coaches to grieve and process the news that started to roll-in regarding Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and others who were in the helicopter that crashed in California. Both Magic head coach Steve Clifford and Clippers head coach Doc Rivers spoke to reporters about 90-minutes before the game.
Kawhi Leonard led the Clippers with 31 points, 14 rebounds, and 7 assists.
“It was just a different feeling for sure,” Clifford said during his post-game conference of playing a game following the news of Bryant’s unexpected death. “You could sense it in the locker room. Doc (Rivers) said his guys were the same way. It’s a tough day, it’s a tough day for our league, for sports fans, (obviously) his family, and for people that knew him - there’s not many guys like him. It’s a difficult day for sure.”
In a touching tribute to Bryant, the Clippers held the basketball after winning the opening tip, allowing the 24-second shot clock to expire (in honor of Bryant’s jersey number - 24). The Magic continued the remembrance of Bryant by holding the ball in the back-court, which resulted in an eight-second back-court violation (in honor of Bryant’s original jersey number - 8).
Things were understandably somber inside the Amway Center at tip-off, and the Magic began the game as one would expect they would in the kind of situation they found themselves in; they lacked a whole lot of energy and were off the mark with their shot attempts.
But after missing their first seven attempts from the floor, the Magic got into a rhythm and converted seven of their next nine attempts.
Orlando was able to take advantage of a Los Angeles defense that was also lacking a ton of energy, forcing them into nine personal fouls in the first quarter (which resulted in 15 free throw attempts).
Lou Williams got the Clippers going in the second quarter scorning, nine of his 15 points in the period. The veteran guard used a handful of savvy moves to get Michael Carter-Williams off his feet, drawing two fouls with Orlando’s back-up point guard in the air on back-to-back possessions.
After remaining relatively quiet for most of the first half, Leonard erupted for nine points in the last five minutes of the second quarter. Leonard connected on back-to-back jumpers from the top of the key before using a pump-fake to get to the rim and slam home a thunderous dunk on Nikola Vucevic with just over four minutes remaining in the half.
Orlando received great first half minutes from reserve forward Wes Iwundu, who recorded a steal that led to a Gordon dunk (on a lob from Iwundu), beautifully cut to the basket that led to an uncontested dunk, and then knocked down a corner three that briefly tied the game at 52-52.
Just like at the start of the game, the Magic were once again ice cold to begin the second half. Orlando missed 12 of 14 attempts to begin the second half, despite grabbing six offensive rebounds within the first six minutes of the quarter.
The Clippers buried five three-point field goals in the third quarter (5-6 3PTA’s), including two from Landry Shamet, and opened up their largest lead of the game.
The Magic went 6 for 27 (22.2%) from the floor in the third period.
Orlando got back in the game behind the efforts of their second unit. A lineup that featured Carter-Williams, Iwundu, Khem Birch, and Mohamed Bamba pushed the Magic out on a 11-5 run to begin the fourth quarter.
The Magic cut the deficit to eight points with 4:26 left in the game, but that was as close as they would get.
The quartet of Evan Fournier (5 for 19), Terrence Ross (3 for 15), Gordon (3 for 12), and Vucevic (5 for 15) shot a combined 26% from the field.
“There was no energy throughout the whole game,” Fournier said in front of his locker after the game. “especially in the first quarter, on both sides honestly. It was a weird game.”
“We have a quick turnaround.” Carter-Williams said after the game. “We play tomorrow, we have a tough team (in Miami). They are one of the best teams, if not the best team, at home. So we gotta go in there, we’ve got to play a full 48 (minutes). If they (Miami) don’t get a lead, they’re going to fight back. If they get a lead, they’re going to try and push it. We’ve got to go in their and play well.”
The Magic play in Miami tomorrow night on the second night of a back-to-back. They will then have four days off before playing again at home on Saturday.
Basketball was played Sunday evening, both in Orlando as well as in seven other cities around the league.
But players are human beings first, entertainers and competitors second. And naturally, as the adrenaline of the game wore off, and the monumental reality of what happened today began to sink in, everyone inside the Magic locker room echoed their thoughts and prayers for Bryant’s family first and foremost.
“At the end of the day, his (Bryant’s) wife lost her husband and her daughter,” Vucevic said of the tragedy. “Their other daughters lost a sister and father. Other people lost their people that were also in the helicopter. You can’t explain how to feel, for sure just terrible for them.”