In the NBA the most difficult deficit to overcome is rarely the one teams face on the scoreboard. Instead, it’s the talent deficit which usually decides games. In a league driven by starpower the Magic were reminded of this fact on Friday night, falling to the skilled, deep and All-Star led Clippers by a sizable margin.
The full extent of the Clippers talent was on display early. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard drilled back-to-back long-range attempts, while Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson were able to get on the board early with buckets at the hoop courtesy of a porous Orlando defense. At the other end of the court it was LA’s length and switchability — Leonard, George, Ibaka and Nic Batum is a fearsome foursome for any side to overcome — giving the Magic fits; after hitting their second attempt of the night the team clanked seven straight, retreating to a timeout in search of necessary adjustments down 14-3 after only four minutes of play.
Things didn’t immediately improve coming out of the huddle. Orlando continued to miss shots at a prodigious rate. Outside of a short jumper from Nikola Vucevic and a brute force putback from Aaron Gordon the box score remained barren for the Magic, the team at one point falling to just 3-18 from the field. Eventually the second unit were able to get a few buckets to go — both Khem Birch and Terrence Ross found some mid-range touch — while also fortunately benefiting from a relative cold stretch that afflicted the Clippers. The game settled into more of a defensive arm wrestle over the quarter’s final minutes before a quick Human Torch burst, fueled by two shooting fouls drawn on three-point attempts, closed the gap to just a single basket. When Dwayne Bacon got a triple to go on Orlando’s final possession of the period it was somehow locked up at 26 apiece, a 21-8 spurt pulling the Magic right back into the contest.
The play seemed to find an extra gear to open the second quarter, with both defenses looking active on rotations and switches and the offenses doing a reasonable job of sniffing out mismatches and opportunities. The Magic were able to find Ross coming off screens in space, while for the Clippers it was Lou Williams taking advantage of the bigger and slower Gary Clark on consecutive sequences. Unfortunately for Orlando, it was LA who were able to lean into star power to break the deadlock, with Paul George rattling off 7 straight points over and two-and-a-half minute stretch for the Clippers, pushing their advantage to 6 before Vucevic nailed a trail three that brought it back to a one possession game.
Both sides largely went back to their starting units as half-time neared, and it was the Clippers who first seized the advantage. Leonard and Ibaka were both able to use their size inside to generate points, part of a 9-0 LA run that threatened to blow the contest open. To their credit, the Magic were able to settle, more effectively helping to snuff out LA’s dribble penetration and forcing shot attempts to the perimeter. The opposition obliged with some misses, which Ennis, Ross and Vucevic were all able to successfully leverage into buckets at the other end. However, it was the Clippers who claimed the final four made baskets of the half, ultimately pushing their advantage to 62-48 at the major break.
It was a familiar story for the Magic, victims of a halftime deficit courtesy of the make or mis nature of basketball. Orlando were just 17-47 (36.2%) from the field as a team over the first twenty-four minutes, a figure that wouldn’t cut it against a Clippers team collectively shooting 51.2%. The starters were comparatively even worse in combining for a frigid 9-33 (27.3%), thoroughly overshadowed by their All-Star counterparts Leonard and George who had delivered 35 of LA’s 62 points. In fact, if it weren’t for Ross’ individual brilliance — a perfect 5 of 5 from the floor combined with 6 of 6 from the line for 16 points with 4 rebounds — this game likely would already have been over.
The Magic came out of the locker room with a greater sense of purpose evident in their game, moving crisply on offense and locking in defensively. Defensive rebounds and disruption in the passing lanes fueled transition opportunities, which Orlando were able to convert as part of an 11-0 run to open the half. A James Ennis corner run capped this spurt, sending the Clippers scrambling to a timeout and rejuvenating the Magic’s chances.
It was George who got LA moving in the right direction, drilling a three and then running the floor hard for a transition lay-in when the Magic failed to get back after a miss. When he got a circus shot in the paint to go after an Orlando turnover the deficit was back to 10, a reminder of how little the Magic could afford to lose concentration against one of the league’s elite. Some frustration was evidently creeping in for an Orlando side that could sense they were under the pump, with a no-call incensing Vooch and ultimately resulting in a technical foul on the big man — along with one for coach Steve Clifford — and breath-gathering time out for the home side.
With things starting to get away from the Magic they brought back the energy injection of Ross and Birch while also more often putting the ball into Fournier’s hands to create. It resulted in some quick buckets, but the inability to stymie the Clippers meant that the deficit continued to hover around 15. Ibaka was causing Vucevic fits at both ends of the floor, and even a substitution that matched Orlando’s big man up with Ivica Zubac failed to really get him going. It was a struggle the Magic could ill afford, painfully highlighted by LA’s ability to rely on their starpower to keep things ticking over. When Jackson made an absurd last-second shot off a Leonard feed it was 90-71, a margin reflective of the performance of the top-tier talent on display.
Down the stretch there was simply too much poor play and ineffective execution by Orlando to either bridge the gap or nullify the talent deficit they faced. Offensive possessions stagnated, with one-on-one isolation plays ensuring life remained difficult at this end of the floor. Gordon was the worst offender in this regard, and it was his silly between the legs dribble through a pair of defenders that gifted Williams a transition triple and sent the Magic scrambling for a time out. At this stage it was a 23 point deficit and, for all intents and purposes, the contest was over. Both sides largely played out the string over the final eight minutes, a Mo Bamba sighting the only real point of interest for Magic fans (8 points and 4 rebounds in 6 minutes which, by my advanced calculations, is a 64 point and 32 rebound pace should he have played all 48 minutes. Free Bamba!). When the final siren blessedly sounded it was 116-90, Orlando the victim of a star-powered beatdown.
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: Terrence Ross — hit his first 7 shots of the night and finished with 24 points, 4 rebounds and an assist. His offensive contributions in the first half were the main thing that kept the Magic in the game for any length of time at all.
Second star: Khem Birch — as is usually the case, the Big Maple’s boxscore doesn’t immediately jump out: 7 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks in 24 minutes. But Birch was one of the Magic’s best, playing solid defense, setting huge screens, and injecting energy that the team sorely lacked for most of the night.
Third star: Gary Clark — snagged 4 offensive rebounds by crashing the glass like a madman, and also hit two three-pointers. It might not seem like much but, well, it was one of those nights.
The loss sends Orlando to 8-12 on the season, still on the outer fringes of an ever-tightening postseason play-in race. They’ll look to get back on the right side of the ledger on Sunday against the Raptors.