ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s a certainty that many of the least experienced players on the Orlando Magic are going to get thrown into tight late-game situations as the season winds down.
Which players? That can be a mystery.
In the fourth quarter of their 96-86 loss Friday night to the Washington Wizards, the Magic used some lineup combinations which were a bit out of the ordinary for crunch time. Andrew Nicholson, their 2012 first-round pick who has often had problems finding regular playing time, and Doron Lamb, who had been averaging less than 12 minutes in his first full season with them, got extended runs with the outcome hanging in the balance.
But Victor Oladipo, a leading candidate for NBA Rookie of the Year, tied his season low in minutes played with 16. While that could be attributed in part to foul trouble, Nicholson had a similar situation and eventually fouled out with less than a minute to go — but not before he logged more minutes in the second half than Kyle O’Quinn, who had been playing well of late at power forward.
Regardless of which group coach Jacque Vaughn had on the floor, the Magic struggled at both ends over the final 12 minutes, making only four of their 15 shots while allowing the Wizards to score 20 points in the paint.
"We tried to find a combination that was working," he said. "We had bigs in foul trouble a little bit."
Although the Magic were whistled for a season-high 31 fouls, they wound up shooting more free throws than the Wizards in the second half. The problem was that many of their fouls came at the offensive end, which helped account for the 13 turnovers they committed after halftime.
"That’s where I got most of my fouls," said Oladipo, who barely avoided fouling out for the first time in his young career. "It wasn’t like I was getting my fouls at the other end."
Lamb’s third 3-point field goal trimmed the Wizards’ lead to 79-78 with 6:44 remaining. But the Magic managed only two more baskets the rest of the way. Excluding him, they went 1 of 15 from 3-point range in the game, a complete turnabout from an 11-of-24 performance Wednesday night when they defeated the Brooklyn Nets.
"We’ve just got to move the ball, be decisive, and be deliberate about the things you want to accomplish on the offensive end," said Arron Afflalo, whose 3-pointer with 1:15 came after the Wizards sealed their victory by going on a 9-0 run. "You just can’t be helter-skelter out there. That comes with maturity and growth."
Despite the emphasis on developing first-year (Oladipo, Dewayne Dedmon) or second-year (Nicholson, Lamb, O’Quinn, Maurice Harkless) players, a plot line which surfaced through the first three quarters was whether Jameer Nelson might record the first triple-double of his 10-year career with the Magic. He already had 12 points and 10 assists entering the final period and needed only three more rebounds to achieve that milestone.
Nelson fell short, but not before playing more than twice as many minutes in the game as Oladipo. For the second contest in a row, Vaughn rarely used both guards on the floor at the same time.
Oladipo’s rough night included a hard fall he took late in the third quarter after driving to the rim but failing to get a basket or draw a foul on the Wizards. He was limping and wincing noticeably heading back upcourt but showed no lingering effects during the final period.
"People are going to be waiting for me (at the rim)," he said. "I’ve just got to do a better job of knowing that they’re there."
Even after the Magic’s 56th loss of the season with three games remaining, Vaughn sounded pleased with how his team looked against an opponent trying to improve its seeding the Eastern Conference playoffs.
"We leave these games, and we’re learning lessons," he said. "What I do like is we’re playing better basketball."
But sometimes better isn’t good enough to pull out a win.