Now in sole possession of the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed, the Magic arrived in Texas for a showdown with the Spurs seeking their fourth straight win. LaMarcus Aldridge was a big out for the hosts, but it promised to still be tough sledding for an Orlando side playing a rested opponent on the second night of a back-to-back.
It was San Antonio who had the best of the early going. The Spurs made their first four triples, a fact that stretched Orlando’s defense further out to the perimeter on subsequent possessions. Predictably this then opened up space in the middle of the floor, allowing DeMar DeRozan and the unlikely suspect of Trey Lyles to take advantage. In fact, Lyles was taking advantage of things all over the court: Aldridge’s absence, the Vucevic match up, and a surging confidence. He had 12 points in the game’s first six minutes, more than doubling his average season output before the first television time out. When Rudy Gay and Patty Mills also got in on the long-ball action it sent the Magic scrambling to a huddle in search of a revised gameplan.
A soft hook shot from Michael Carter-Williams temporarily stemmed the bleeding of an 8-0 Spurs run, but the team simply couldn’t get stops at the other end. DeRozan used some bullying footwork to generate a pretty three-point play, Derrick White sliced up Orlando’s interior defense, and Gay drilled another triple. The lead swelled all the way to 16 on two occasions, before a late three to James Ennis and a sweet high-banked layup to DJ Augustin shrunk the gap a little. When the quarter closed it was 38-27 to the Spurs on the back of 7 makes from deep on 11 attempts and 65.2% shooting overall.
James Ennis got the second quarter started by connecting again from long distance, allowing the Magic to keep pace with a Spurs side that continued to score the ball efficiently. Orlando’s newest recruit also made an impression elsewhere, getting his hands on a pair of offensive rebounds and generally playing with evident hustle. The team’s execution was noticeably better in this period, and when some of the bounces started going their way they were able to close the gap. Nikola Vucevic made another long jumper. Augustin sunk a pair at the line. A Terrence Ross triple found the bottom of the net. When Vooch got a short hook to go and Ross found an open layup the margin had been reduced to just one, an 11-0 run making it a single-possession game.
The back half of the quarter turned into a slog. The offense dried up for both teams, with more than two scoreless minutes coming off the clock before the scoreboard got moving again. Unfortunately for the Magic it was the Spurs who found their rhythm first, with Murray and Gay combining for 11 points in the period’s final four-and-a-half. By comparison, after getting within one Orlando racked up 7 missed shots and 4 turnovers, with Fournier being the only player in pinstripes to make a field goal during this stretch.
Luckily, Ross was able to make some free throws to keep things manageable and the Magic went to the locker room trailing by just 8, down 61-53 after a half in which they were comprehensively outshot. San Antonio made 62.2% of their field goal attempts across the first two quarters (including 9 of 17 from deep), compared to just 42% for Orlando. Gay and Lyles were the main culprits, with 16 and 12 respectively at the break. For the Magic, Fournier and Vucevic had 10 apiece, while recent standout Aaron Gordon was scoreless on only two attempts from the field — both ugly step-back threes — along with a pair of turnovers.
Orlando looked a step slow and awkwardly sloppy as the third period opened. In the quarter’s first four minutes the team racked up four missed free-throws, two-missed field goals, and two turnovers. Murray and DeRozan continued to get into the paint at will; elsewhere, Vucevic was being bested by Drew Eubanks, who drilled a corner three that Vooch failed to close out and then simply outmaneuvered him in the post. The deficit had swelled back to 15, and an early time out ensued. Orlando regrouped and rattle off a 7-0 run of their own, capped by a nasty one-handed reverse slam by AG after forcing a turnover at the other end. This sent the Spurs back to their bench, the scoreboard showing 72-66 in their favor.
San Antonio rattle off another quick 9-4 spurt out of the huddle, seeming to comfortably keep them margin at the double-digit mark. The Magic were their own worst enemy during this stretch, with wayward passes after drives and a Gordon technical foul keeping the momentum with the Spurs. Orlando just couldn’t get anyone going offensively, with Fournier and Ross both tossing up airballs in the period, Gordon clanking 5 free-throws, Vucevic coughing up multiple turnovers, and Fultz almost non-existent. Somehow, despite all this, the Magic stayed in touch, primarily the result of energetic defense and strong defensive rebounding. When Ross got a three-point play to go down and MCW nailed an open three the margin was just 4, 85-81 Spurs.
A bench-heavy squad kept things moving in the right direction for the Magic as the final quarter opened. Ennis was everywhere, blocking a pair of shots, scoring on a sweet cut to the rim, and generally being the energy the team so desperately needed. Augustin and Mo Bamba hit a pair of threes to shrink the deficit to 1, and when Carter-Williams scored on an aggressive transition drive Orlando claimed their first lead of the night. Bamba followed this up with a block on a probing White, before Augustin made a difficult mid-range shot that forced Popovich to call timeout. It was now 93-90 Magic, a 12-5 run setting the team up for the game’s final eight minutes and change.
A Ross triple momentarily pushed the lead to 6 before the Spurs countered. They went downhill with determination, driving hard at Orlando’s defenders and looking for chances early in the clock. An Augustin turnover was compounded by a low-effort play by Ross, the result a layup by Mills that gave San Antonio back the lead. This is when the see-saw took full effect, with the two teams largely trading scoring possessions over the next three minutes. The Magic needed just 30 seconds to snap the stalemate.
With 3:45 remaining Fultz found Fournier with a sliver of daylight. He pulled the trigger without hesitation, and his make from distance gave the Magic back a one-point lead. Fultz then played excellent defense on a DeRozan drive, holding his ground and keeping the arms straight under the hoop. The ball spilled to Gordon, the Spurs complained, and Fultz pushed the ball in transition with a numbers advantage. A 5-on-4 developed, and the young point guard calmly moved the ball to a wide-open Ross. The Human Torch complied, and Orlando went to another timeout with a four-point advantage, 109-105.
San Antonio again went small with Gay at the center position, almost immediately seeing a reward as the veteran took advantage of Vooch’s slower feet. Fultz was able to answer with a drive to the rim against the soft interior, but a massive pair of buckets by Bryn Forbes combined with a pair of tough misses for the Magic gave the lead back to the Spurs, 114-111 with just 49 seconds remaining. Orlando were struggling to adjust to the Spurs all-perimeter lineup, with the high pick and roll being dialled up over and over.
A tough 13-footer from Fultz got the Magic back within 1, and the team then forced a tough shot from Gay at the other end. However, Fultz didn’t find a body on the boxout and Gay saw the ball bounce right back to him with the shot clock now turned off. A quick foul forced an inbound, and Orlando actually sent the Spurs back to the huddle twice with some stifling defense. On the third opportunity they actually got the ball inbounded, but Ennis pounced immediately and poked the ball loose. MCW recovered, kickstarted the fast break, and Fournier took the ball in-stride on his way to the hoop.
Step through. Off glass. Front rim. Heartbreak.
The layup attempt missed, San Antonio cleared the rebound, and that was all she wrote. The Magic fall 114-113 in Texas, allowing the opposition to shoot 52.4% from the floor and 45.2% from deep, while also missing 7 of their own costly free-throws.
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 — missed his chance to be the hero, but his 23 points, 5 assists, 4 steals and 5-10 shooting from deep is what kept them in it in the first place.
Second star: James Ennis — the boxscore numbers don’t jump out, but his final line of 8 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks was instrumental in dragging the Magic back into this contest. Was a key part of the bench run that almost broke the game open.
Third star: DJ Augustin — with respect to Ross’ 21 points, the veteran point guard was Orlando’s best reserve tonight. He finished with 12 points, 7 assists and just one turnover, and conducted the Magic through their most efficient stretch of the game.
Losing a game like this always hurts. Orlando will have just one day to regroup before they face the Blazers back in Florida. Let’s hope it’s a better result.