The Magic had another opportunity to win — something that has seemed so fleeting in this struggle of a season with a bunch of young players filling roles that may be above their pay grade for the moment. Orlando led Houston 100-98 with five minutes to play. The team was rolling offensively all night and seemed finally to get some stops.
Houston though had the finishing kick and the young Orlando team did not have the wherewithal to close things out. Turnovers, shaky execution and poor shot selection ultimately doomed the Magic.
And after keeping pace with the Rockets the entire game and holding down one of the league's top offensive teams, the Rockets were finally unleashed in those final moments. They got out on the break and continued to hit their 3-pointers at an alarming rate for many defenses.
Houston went on a 14-2 run in the next three minutes to turn that 2-point deficit into a 10-point lead. The Rockets scored seven of their 17 fast break points during that run and got to the line four times, pushing the tempo and pushing the pace. Orlando could not make shots to keep pace and the struggles to run the pick and roll with Arron Afflalo and Nikola Vucevic only further fed the offensive juggernaut on the other side.
It was a game that ultimately came down to who could get a stop. At long last, Houston did and took a 118-108 win over Orlando at Amway Center on Friday night.
The Magic were outscored 32-23 in the final quarter despite making one more field goal than the Rockets and shooting an identical 50 percent from the floor. The nine fourth quarter turnovers were the difference and led to the team taking the hard loss.
"Finishing the game is a tough thing to do in this league," coach Jacque Vaughn said. "It boils down to execution and that’s on both ends of the floor. It’s amplified. A turnover that you have in the first quarter, just doesn’t feel the same in the fourth quarter. You have to learn that. You have to go through that. When the fourth comes around, those possessions matter even more."
Orlando put together one of its best offensive performances of the year in a game the team would absolutely need it against the free-wheeling shot-happy Houston team. Orlando hit on 56.4 percent of their shots and 9 of its 22 3-pointers. The team had 61 points at halftime.
The 110 points were the fourth most the team has scored all year and the 56.4 percent shooting was the highest all season.
The Magic had things rolling, it was just that fourth quarter that stuck out. There the Magic simply did not execute and make the plays they needed to win the game. And the Rockets, who shot 54.5 percent from the floor themselves and made 15 of 32 3-pointers, did.
Perhaps some of Orlando's youth was shown in the closing stretch of the game.
"First and foremost, I think individually we all have to get better the rest of this season and moving forward," Arron Afflalo said. "I’m definitely speaking about myself. W just have to become a better player so that you’re better in situations in terms of handling the ball, shooting the ball, some of the basics of the game that make you a better player so you don’t have miscues and turnovers.
"As far as us being young and learning how to win, that’s part of it. That’s part of growing up. I think it’s a combination of us individually getting better in our skills and on top of that getting more and more experience learning how to win."
This whole season has been a long learning experience for the Magic. The good news is that Orlando is finding ways to continue to compete in most of its games and gave itself a chance to win yet again.
And the young players led Orlando again.
Tobias Harris turned in a career-high 27 points, making 11 of 15 field goals and three of 5 3-pointers, to lead Orlando in scoring. He continues to impress with his offensive ability and his ability to create when given some space. He also added 10 rebounds, helping the Magic lock down the boards after some early struggles handling the Rockets' big front line of Omer Asik and Donatas Motiejunas.
Afflalo had 19 points. Nikola Vucevic added 18 points and 10 rebounds. And Andrew Nicholson made seven of his eight shots to score 17 points.
"I think that’s important for us," Tobias Harris said of the nip-and-tuck nature of the game. "The main thing is we went out there tonight and played a heck of a game, brought a lot of energy and battled to the end of the game. I t just shows as a team we’re making steps. If we can keep building on this, I think that will be good for us."
Youth was most certainly served for the Magic throughout. Each time Houston seemed poised to make a run, Orlando was able to comre right back with a 3-pointer or a run of its own. The Magic were able to get stops and force the Rockets into difficult 3-point shots. Houston was happy to fire away.
Part of that was by design. Vaughn (perhaps surprisingly) praised his team's defensive focus and execution. He said part of the team's strategy was to give up layups and shots int he paint at certain times to prevent 3-point shooting. It might not have been a perfect defensive strategy, but it got the job done to keep Orlando in the game.
It just was not enough down the stretch. Jacque Vaughn made his final substitution of the game with 9:38 remaining, relying on a group of E'Twaun Moore, Beno Udrih, Arron Afflalo, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic. The group helped Orlando take the lead four minutes later in a see-saw battle into and out of the lead. But it was also the group that struggled to execute down the stretch as Houston began to assert itself more on the break.
The ball often got stuck in Afflalo's hands and poor spacing on pick and rolls with Nikola Vucevic led to some breakdowns. It was another missed opportunity. That is about the only way to describe it.
With this team, there seems to be only so many opportunities to win and it is difficult to watch any of them get away.
One certainly seemed to get away Friday night. Perhaps next time the learning experience will help the team grow.