If the Magic thought their return to Florida after a 1-4 road trip would be the start of something easier, they were slugged with another cruel reminder not to get ahead of themselves before the game even tipped. Aaron Gordon, who has ostensibly been playing point guard for the injury-ravaged side, would himself be inactive, the result of back and hip soreness. His addition to the lengthy list of unavailable players, along with a prolonged fourth quarter drought and some familiar late-game execution problems, meant that the Magic would lose a second consecutive heartbreaker as they snatched defeat from what looked at one stage like the jaws of inevitable victory.
The depleted nature of Orlando’s lineup necessitated a more simplistic game plan, which was evident from the opening possessions. It was a steady diet of Nikola Vucevic, with the team evidently intent on running two and three man action featuring the big man as the centerpiece. He set screens to generate space, got the scoreboard ticking over with some close range buckets working out of isolation, and was also able to find teammates for attempts when the double team arrived.
Vooch was ably supported throughout the opening quarter by Evan Fournier and James Ennis, both of whom were able to supplement the team’s scoring and drive play in favor of the Magic. Fournier was both patient and aggressive with the ball in hand, attacking the hoop when the opportunity presented itself and firing away from the perimeter on kick outs. Ennis was similarly decisive, moving the ball fluently, finishing scoring plays, and deploying suffocating defense to generate transition chances. When Gary Clark and Terrence Ross started chipping in three-point bombs Orlando threatened to bust things open, but the Hornets were able to stay within shouting distance thanks to some timely triples of their own. Still, when the quarter ended it was 29-24 the way of the Magic.
The passing and offensive fluency of the reserve unit wasn’t as smooth as that exhibited by Orlando’s starters, but what they may have lacked in execution they made up for with determination. Fueled by Khem Birch and Gary Clark on the offensive glass the Magic were able to extend possessions and scrounge up points, ballooning the team’s lead to double figures on the back of a pair of Cole Anthony threes.
Some sloppiness entered Orlando’s play at this point, with the team failing to clean the defensive glass while also not cleanly finishing their own possessions. A Steve Clifford technical foul was the end result, which ultimately provided the Magic a chance to regroup. They largely did, with more energetic defense and better looks helping to maintain most of the cushion that had been established. The quarter played out with some back and forth basket making, settling at 58-50 courtesy of Clark’s eleventh point of the first half as he dropped a third triple with time winding down.
At the major break it was 50.0% team shooting propelling the Magic, including a blistering 10-21 from deep (47.6%). Both of these numbers compared favorably to the Hornets, who were closer to league average at 45.5% and 36.8% respectively. Orlando had racked up assists on 17 of their first 21 baskets, while also getting to the line more than twice as frequently as the opposition (9 attempts to just 4). The turnover and rebounding contests were evenly poised, further highlighting the make-or-miss dynamic of the game to this point. The Magic were paced by Fournier’s 12 and Clark’s 11, although the highlight was undoubtedly Anthony’s well-rounded 10 points (on 4-8 shooting), 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 stocks, and solitary turnover.
Entering the third quarter the goal for Orlando had to be limiting the impact of the Hornet’s Gordon Hayward, who had shook loose in the first half for 19 points on 8-12 shooting. He got an early free-throw to go off a defensive three-second call, but after that was blanketed by Ennis and held without a field goal attempt for almost four minutes. He snapped that with an and-one finish on an extended possession, but the Magic were able to maintain their advantage with patient if predictable offense - Vucevic, Fournier and Anthony working variations of the two-man game. When Orlando called timeout with 5:52 left in the quarter they were in possession of a 9 point lead.
Coming out of the huddle Anthony hit Ross with a pinpoint alley-oop pass, before an Ennis triple from the corner ballooned the lead further and sent the Hornets scrambling for an adjustment. Their defensive intensity evidently turned up a notch, but the Magic remained committed to dribble drives that bent the defense and a willingness to throw extra passes. A pair of aggressive drives from Jordan Bone and Dwayne Bacon ensured that the margin remained a double-figure one, eventually settling at 12, 86-74, as the teams headed into the final frame.
The Magic came into this game sporting a 4-0 record when leading after three quarters, a statistic that was almost immediately in trouble with the second unit starting the frame sluggishly. Orlando struggled with their shot against the aggressive help defense Charlotte threw at them, surrendering a 7-0 run across the quarter’s first three minutes and seeing their lead cut to just 5. When PJ Washington slammed home a finish off the back of a discombobulated Magic turnover it was a single possession game, and a previously comfortable position was looking shaky.
Orlando immediately put the ball back in the hands of Vucevic and Fournier, asking the two veterans to steer the ship through to calmer waters. Vooch started by getting a 17-footer to go, but when Fournier missed a floater it allowed the Hornets to lock things up at 88 apiece with a pair of free throw makes. Vucevic got those back at the line on the next possession, but a Devonte Graham triple on the next sequence pushed Charlotte into the lead for the first time since the first quarter. After that another missed Magic jumper gave way to a Hayward triple at the other end, part of a devastating 25-4 run the Hornets used to open the final quarter, ensuring that Orlando would play the final minutes from behind.
Clark gave the Magic a sniff by converting a long-range bomb generated by a Fournier drive-and-kick, slicing the gap to 6. Orlando then got two of the game’s next three buckets, including a fortuitous tip to Vucevic that drew them within 5. When Fournier hit his second three-pointer of the game’s closing minutes with 58.9 to play the margin was just 3, with a stop desperately needed. Instead, Orlando surrendered two straight offensive rebounds, failing to end possessions and putting their own fate in the hands of the opposition.
Luckily for them, they chose the right set of hands to entrust.
Bismack Biyombo was fouled putting back an offensive rebound, heading to the line for two attempts with the game in the balance. He ganked them both, allowing Fournier to haul in the board and push the ball down the court. After collapsing the defense with a penetrative dribble he found Ross in the corner for an open three, which he calmly drilled to knot the game at 104. The result would now rest on the shoulders of the defense.
Unfortunately for the Magic, they weren’t able to contain the Hornets on their last possession. Hayward attacked the key from high, using a screen to generate some separation from Fournier. Clark didn’t fully commit to walling off the free-throw line from a help position, allowing the Hornet’s resurgent wing to slice down the lane for an uncontested layup with 0.7 remaining on the clock. Facing a 107-104 deficit Orlando had one last chance, but a five-second inbounds turnover — classic Magic basketball! — effectively ended things and denied them an unlikely comeback win in a game they should have had no business losing.
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 — had some unfortunate turnovers but finished the night with 21 points, 6 assists, and a pair of huge triples to claw the Magic back into it. The threat of his outside shooting changes the dynamics of play for this team, as does his ability to play both off and on-ball.
Second star: Cole Anthony — was quiet in the second after a monster first half, but still finished with 14, 6 and 5 with 2 stocks and a pair of long-range makes. Was put in a tough position at the death when asked to be the inbounds trigger man. The rookie is displaying genuine signs of development.
Third star: Collective three-point shooting — oh how different a team can look when the long-range radar is working. The Magic shot 44.7% from deep as a team (17-38), getting two or more triples from 7 different players. Clark and Ennis, in particular, look like entirely different players when the opposition has to attend to them on the arc.
Another game, another last-second decision. Unfortunately for the Magic, they again finished on the wrong side of the ledger. They’ll look to right that wrong in a return matchup against the Hornets tomorrow.