ORLANDO, Fla. — Almost to a man, the Orlando Magic admitted their execution Sunday night in the closing seconds against the Boston Celtics didn’t go quite they way they envisioned.
Then again, they hadn’t envisioned going through a 10-game losing streak.
After denying Jeff Green a good look from 3-point range, the Magic were forced to go into scramble mode on defense. Whatever they improvised was good enough to prevent the Celtics from getting off a shot before the final horn and to pull out a 93-91 victory.
"When you’re focused on winning the game and not what you’re doing individually at the end of the game, you end up making those types of plays," said Arron Afflalo, who not only led the Magic in scoring with 20 points but tied his career high in rebounds with 13. "Honestly, we made some mistakes on that last defensive (possession). But because our whole team was in tune with trying to win the game, we covered for each other beautifully."
In a game where neither team led by more than three points in the fourth quarter, the Magic untied the score when Tobias Harris knocked down two free throws with 10.1 seconds to go. The Celtics called a timeout to draw up a play and then gave the appearance of intending to win the game rather than send it into overtime. But when Green couldn’t pull the trigger, they looked every bit as disorganized as the Magic, if not more.
"We just kind of scrambled," Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. "We talk about basketball not being perfect. That’s a perfect example right there where you’ve just got to play."
By no means were the Magic flawless before then. Clinging to a 91-89 lead, they not only let Green catch an inbound pass from Gerald Wallace in the low post following a timeout but also fouled Green as he laid the ball in.
Had Green converted the three-point play opportunity, the Magic could have been excused for beating themselves up as badly as when they blew a nine-point lead in the final minute of regulation at Cleveland earlier this month. But Green, who was 13 of 14 from the line at that point, saw his free throw rim out.
Victor Oladipo dove on the floor to get the loose ball, one of several hustle plays the Magic came up with in snapping a slide that began on New Year’s Eve.
"These are the types of things that happen when you just play to win," Afflalo said.
Added Harris: "Those are all winning plays. They all add up. It’s something that the coaches talked to us about. Our mindset going into this game was it’s a must-win game for us. And the last play of the game just shows, how much we helped each other on the defensive end. That’s what it’s all about."
The Celtics probably helped the Magic by not making their first option going for the tie. Vaughn used only seven players less than a week after a triple-overtime game against the Chicago Bulls where both Oladipo and Jameer Nelson logged more than 50 minutes. Until Harris’ two free throws, Afflalo and Glen Davis pretty much carried the Magic on their backs down the stretch.
"I could feel no personal agendas," said Afflalo, who assisted on three of Davis’ five baskets in the fourth quarter. "I could feel nothing but five guys who were on the court and the two guys who came off the bench really looking for a way to get a victory."
One of those two guys off the bench, Kyle O’Quinn, gave the Magic a badly-needed boost after they got off slowly again. Seven of his 10 points came in the first quarter, well before most of his teammates got into anything resembling a rhythm.
"We had to break it at some point," O’Quinn said of the Magic’s third double-digit losing streak in the past two seasons. "It was good that we broke it tonight, on a team we had to get a little revenge on. They kind of got at us when we played at their place (in November). So it feels good."
It sure beat the feeling that permeated the locker room and prompted a meeting Saturday involving players and coaches.
"We told ourselves that whatever we worked on, it’s not working," Afflalo said. "So it’s time to make a change now, or it’s going to be a freefall."
The streak was broken. Breaking the fall will require stringing together several more victories like this.