The Orlando Magic created a rather large hole for themselves early in Friday’s contest against the Dallas Mavericks, trailing in the first quarter by as many as 18 points. To their credit, the Magic fought all the way back, and even took a (very) brief lead in the game in the third quarter.
But their overall lack of success shooting the basketball from the outside (9-43 3PTA’s, 20.9%), along with numerous defensive lapses and missed assignments that occurred throughout the game, proved to be too much to overcome against a team as talented as the Mavericks.
Orlando fell to eight games below .500 after their 122-106 loss to Dallas. On the bright side, just nine of Orlando’s 26 remaining games on their schedule will be played against teams with a winning record.
I was at Amway Center last night covering the game, and here are four things that I noticed...
Fultz exited with a cramp, Dallas went a run. Coincidence?
A significant turning point in Orlando’s 122-106 loss to the Dallas Mavericks last night came with 3:27 remaining in the third quarter. At that point, after trailing by as many as 18 points in the first quarter, the Magic had fought all the way back in the contest (and even held a brief third quarter lead).
With Dallas clinging to a one possession lead (80-78), Markelle Fultz exited the game with an apparent cramp in his left calf muscle. The Magic were leading the Mavericks 26-16 at that point in the third quarter.
Dallas outscored Orlando 42-28 the rest of the way. Fultz never returned to the game.
“Every time a guy goes down, it’s difficult,” Nikola Vucevic said in front of his locker after the game when asked about Fultz’s absence in the fourth quarter. “For him, he can really create for us, get in the paint, create for himself and others as well. Definitely, we missed him for sure.”
Fultz went up to challenge a lob to Maxi Kleber at the rim, and Orlando’s starting point guard landed very awkwardly on his left leg. He immediately grabbed his left calf muscle and starting massaging it, before ultimately laying-down on the hardwood. The third-year guard was able to limp under his own power to the Magic bench.
“We were playing well, he was really pushing the ball and giving us good looks in the third quarter,” Evan Fournier added in the locker room about Fultz. “But even when he (Fultz) was on the bench, D.J. (Augustin) did a great job. It was just that fourth quarter (at the beginning) that just wasn’t good. Of course, not having him (Markelle) back was tough for us.”
Orlando was in a position to even be in the game largely due to Fultz’s efforts in the second quarter. There was a 90-second stretch towards the end of the first half when Fultz converted field goals on four consecutive Magic offensive possessions (driving layup dribbling to his right, pull-up jumper at the free throw line after defender went under a screen, a spinning reverse layup, and a runner just inside the free throw line).
OK, @MARKELLEF pic.twitter.com/n63ioP8VLL— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) February 22, 2020
The Magic did not release an official statement regarding Fultz’s calf, neither during nor after the game. Fultz has suffered cramps in the middle of a game already this season, and I think the assumption was that holding him out for the rest of the game was strictly precautionary.
Luka went wild
Fresh off the first All-Star appearance/weekend of his young career, Luka Doncic put on a show in the first half of Friday night’s contest at the Amway Center. Doncic scored 24 of his game-high 33 points in the first half (in just 17 first half minutes), many of those points coming from mesmerizing three-point field goals the Slovenian knocked-down off the dribble.
“He’s a shot-maker,” Aaron Gordon said of Doncic in the locker room after the game. Gordon had the primary responsibility of defending the NBA Rookie of the Year from last season for most of the night. “His ability to create space, his shiftiness (the way he uses his body), he’s a really good player.
the cleanliness pic.twitter.com/EK4zfamVg4— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) February 22, 2020
“What he (Doncic) is doing this year is pretty incredible,” Mavericks center Kristaps Porzingis said after the game. “The level he is playing at, not a lot of guys are doing that right now. I’m extremely happy for him.”
Doncic did a lot of damage from the perimeter, but he was also able to pull down 10 rebounds and dish-out 8 assists.
“Not fouling, simple as that - not fouling,” Magic head coach Steve Clifford said during his pre-game conference when asked about the focus defending Doncic. “He averages nine free throws a game, if he shoots five - that’s a big deal. Look at Trae Young the other night - if you shoot eleven free throws in a half, you’re going to average 29 (points). These guys don’t miss free throws, you just can’t foul them. Easier said than done, we’ve got to play with great discipline.”
It seemed as if Clifford’s team was doing a solid enough job avoiding sending Doncic to the line, but then you look down at the box score after the game, and you see he attempted 12 free throws. That’s just what stars do in this league.
And make no mistake, Doncic is an absolute superstar.
Great, not good defensive team
The All-Star break is often an ideal time for reflection regarding what has and hasn’t worked through the first two-thirds of the NBA season.
From what it sounded like from Steve Clifford before the Dallas game, he certainly took part in some reflection pertaining to what his team can do better these last 25 or so games of the season.
“Our biggest defense problem (this year) has been guarding your guy,” Clifford told reporters before Friday’s game. “Which last year we were good at, this year it’s the weakest part of our defense.”
“You’ve got to guard your guy, you’ve got to be able to keep your guys in front of you,” Cifford added. “It takes technique, concentration, and determination. And to me if we would do that...listen, we’re very good defensively...but we need to be great.”
There it is. Clifford is calling on his team to get back to their identity; they can’t settle on being just a pretty good defensive team, they need to be great.
Friday night wasn’t a great start on the journey of returning to a dominant NBA defensive team (like the club that went on a run towards the end of last season). The Magic gave up 30 or more points in a quarter in three of the four frames against the Mavericks. Dallas tops the NBA in offensive rating (for context), but the Magic still blew countless basic pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop coverages nonetheless.
“Our focus has to be better,” Vucevic said after the game about his team’s defense. “Our attention to detail, executing the game plan, making the extra effort - things we talk about over and over. I think we just don’t do it consistently. We have stretches where we do it and we’re really good at it (and it sparks our offense as well), but it’s just not consistent for 48 minutes.”
“Our attention to detail just wasn’t there from the start,” Gordon said of his team’s defensive efforts against the Mavericks. “Yeah, we did a nice job fighting back. But if you’re going to just give up possession after possession, you’re not going to be able to win in this league.
I assume a few of those squandered defensive possessions Gordon is referring to involved Dallas backup center Kleber, who torched the Magic in pick-and-roll sets en route to a career-high 26 points off the Mavericks bench.
“It just comes with preparation. There needs to be a higher sense of urgency (and concentration) in the shoot-arounds and in our practices,” Gordon added, when asked about how is team can develop that attention to detail.
“Yeah, because we can’t score,” Fournier said when asked about Clifford’s vision of the club being a great defensive team in order for overall team success. “We have to play great defense. If we’re just good defensively, it’s not going to be enough (with the struggles that we have offensively).”
Ennis starting over Wes Iwundu
“What you look for is, throughout the lineups, who gives your team the best chance to play well, and have the most balance. And by starting him (Ennis), we have more shooting on the floor. He’s a veteran player, he’s played in big games, and he can play against starters.”
That’s what Clifford had to say during his pre-game conference when asked about his reasoning for inserting veteran swing-man James Ennis into the starting lineup.
The California-native was acquired by the Magic just over two weeks ago at the NBA’s Trade Deadline. Ennis had played in just two games with the Magic before Clifford opted to plug him into the first unit.
It was a somewhat surprising decision that was announced a couple hours before tip-off Friday night. Ennis replaced Wes Iwundu in the lineup, who had started five of Orlando’s previous six games heading into the All-Star break. Iwundu didn’t log any minutes last night (DNP - Coach’s decision).
Iwundu had been coming on of late, shooting 45.4 percent on three-point attempts in Orlando’s last ten games (10-22 3PTA’s). The Kansas State alum generally makes very good decisions with the basketball (14 assists to just 1 turnover over that same ten game stretch).
It will be interesting to see if Clifford opts to go back to Iwundu in Brooklyn, or if he’s officially out of Orlando’s rotation for now. Ennis didn’t do his coach any favors in his first start with the Magic, finishing with 2 points (1-6 FGA’s, 0-3 3PTA’s) and 3 rebounds in 22 minutes.
Curious case indeed.
You can follow Aaron Goldstone on Twitter at @AaronGoldstone.