ORLANDO, Fla. — In all four of their games this season against the Atlanta Hawks, the Orlando Magic showed they can go toe-to-toe with one of the NBA’s best teams.
While the Magic began Wednesday night ranked 29th in field-goal defense, with opponents shooting an average of 45.4 percent against them, the Hawks ended up going only 41.7 from the floor in those meetings. But they also went 3-1, with the last of those wins being a 95-83 victory in which the Hawks outscored the Magic 17-2 over the final 5:06.
It was virtually a repeat of what took place at Atlanta in December, when the Magic started the fourth quarter tied before managing only 17 points in the last 12 minutes.
"It was pretty much the same game and pretty much the same thing that’s been happening to us a lot this season," center Nikola Vucevic said. "We play well for three quarters, and in the fourth, we let it slip for some reason."
Of the Magic’s 51 defeats, 11 have now taken place in games where they’ve squandered double-digit leads. And two of those were against the Hawks, who should finish with the top record in the Eastern Conference but came in reeling from losses to Golden State, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
"We’re working through these fourth quarters," interim coach James Borrego said. "We’re learning how to execute down the stretch. We’re learning how to play against a team that has picked up their intensity. And through that intensity, we have to execute more, we have to trust each other more than what we saw in the fourth quarter."
Until Vucevic hit an inconsequential jumper from the top of the key with less than a minute to go, the Magic were 3 of 14 from the floor in a fourth quarter in which they finished with a season-low 12 points. As unsightly as those numbers were, they were compounded by seven turnovers that led to 13 points for the Hawks.
Victor Oladipo and rookie Elfrid Payton turned the ball over three times apiece down the stretch. Payton’s putback of his own missed shot gave the Magic an 81-78 lead, but everything began to unravel after that.
"We got a little stagnant," said Payton, who outplayed Hawks All-Star Jeff Teague for the better part of three quarters. "We stopped moving the ball. Myself, I’ve got to take better care of the ball. I had a couple of turnovers down the stretch, and they were able to take advantage. It’s a tough league to get a win in."
But as they demonstrated Friday night in knocking off the Portland Trail Blazers, the Magic can tough it out and prevail against quality opposition. That was what made their abysmal showing Sunday night, especially on defense, against the Denver Nuggets so hard to accept.
The return of 7-footer Dewayne Dedmon, who had missed three games with a sprained left ankle, resulted in a much better defensive effort against the Hawks. The Magic were ahead by as many as 13 points in the second quarter and led 52-47 at halftime while holding the Hawks to 37.5 percent shooting.
"He gives us energy," Borrego said of Dedmon. "He gives us an edge. He gives us toughness, protects the paint, challenges shots."
But given Dedmon’s offensive limitations — his only basket was taken away because he touched the ball while it was in the cylinder — Borrego went with Andrew Nicholson at power forward for the majority of the fourth quarter. Nicholson knocked down a 3-pointer off an assist from Vucevic and also hit a shot with his foot on the arc, but the rest of his teammates combined to go 2 of 13.
That won’t cut it against any team, much less one with 54 victories such as the Hawks.
"They definitely played in a higher gear than they did for the first three quarters," Vucevic said. "They really played well defensively and took away some of our stuff, and we didn’t react well to it."
Added Payton: "Once again, it’s one of those things where we know we can play with anybody. We have the talent. We’re good enough. We’ve just got to close out games."
Instead, the only thing the Magic are assured of closing out in the next three weeks will be another season headed towards the NBA draft lottery.