Magic feeling weight of letting victory slip away against visiting Pacers
ORLANDO, Fla. — For a team that hasn’t squandered a lead of larger than 12 points in any of their 32 defeats this season, the Orlando Magic had every reason Sunday night to feel as if they let a sure victory slip from their collective grasp.
They were at home, facing a team mired in a seven-game losing streak and wrapping up a five-game road trip in the Indiana Pacers. And even after a 3-point attempt by rookie Devyn Marble rimmed out with less than eight minutes to go, the Magic could seemingly take heart in knowing they were still up by nine with Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton all getting a rest in order to be ready down the stretch.
But in the wake of the 106-99 loss, the Magic’s 11th setback in their last 13 games, the inescapable truth was that a team with so little margin for error needs to compete for a full 48 minutes. Being ahead through three quarters simply won’t suffice.
"This one is tough because I feel like we played pretty well for most of the game," said Vucevic, who scored a game-high 27 points but never got off a single field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter. "We had a lead with four or five minutes left in the fourth, and we just couldn’t finish the job."
"We don’t really have any room to make a little mistake, miss an assignment or something like that," added Oladipo, who had 18 points through three quarters but none the rest of the way. "We’ve got to be at it. We’ve got to be on our p’s and q’s. We’ve got to do better."
No one other than Payton scored from the floor over the final 8:38. But it shouldn’t come as a shock that it was at the defensive end where the Magic were most prone to lapses.
Damjan Rudez, a rookie from Croatia who was averaging 4.2 points in 34 games, lit them up for 16 points in the fourth quarter alone. Eight of those came in less than a minute as the Pacers tied the score at 90. They would never trail again, although the Magic were able to tie it on two occasions.
Not since the tail end of the 2004-05 season had the Magic allowed 100 or more points in nine consecutive games. That was when Dwight Howard was a rookie who, at best, was a third option to Steve Francis and Grant Hill. Aaron Gordon had yet so much as to turn 10 years old.
Gordon, the fourth pick in last year’s NBA draft, made the first start of his pro career against the Pacers. While he remains on something of a minutes restriction after missing two months with a fractured left foot, the forward out of Arizona provided several highlights.
Barely three minutes into the game, he swatted away what looked like a gimme layup by Rodney Stuckey. There were two fast-break baskets later on, one of which came off a lob from Tobias Harris, as well as a 3-pointer from the right corner.
"He competed and played hard, which was good to see," coach Jacque Vaughn said.
Even a 19-year-old with only 15 games worth of regular-season experience can tell that the Magic, whose schedule is about to get considerably tougher over the next five games, can’t afford fourth quarter in which they get outscored 31-17.
"When it comes down to it, we’re not good enough to have any lapses," Gordon said. "We need to play our best basketball all the time."
Those lapses can make stars out of Rudez or, in the case of Friday night’s loss at New York, Lance Thomas.
"Hopefully you get that sense that you played well for the majority of the game," Vaughn said, putting on a brave face. "You put yourself in a position to win. You’re up nine. You’re creating opportunities to score the basketball. You’re defending. The focus needs to be there for 48 minutes."
"The biggest thing is just continuing to keep playing hard, giving ourselves a chance to win," Oladipo said. "Eventually we’ll turn the corner."
That corner appeared to be turned less than two weeks ago with wins over the Chicago Bulls and the Houston Rockets. Not anymore.