Troy Taormina/USA TODAY
The Magic raced out to a 9-2 lead over the Rockets and looked like they had figured some things out offensively after a horrid second-half performance Friday night in New York.
Things are not that easy. Not ever that easy.
Not with Dwight Howard patrolling the middle — and another shot blocker in Terrence Jones behind him — and James Harden able to lead the break. Eventually the Rockets shots were going to fall. It was just a question of whether the Magic's shots would fall.
For three quarters of the game, it would not. And as the Magic cut into the Rockets' 22-point lead in the fourth quarter, the shots the Magic needed would not go in. Jameer Nelson saw a 3-pointer rattle in and out from the top of the key. Maurice Harkless missed a layup attempt over Jones and then missed the putback attempt. Howard was even making his free throws.
The Magic got it to 10 points on two occasions, including the final score, but could not get that one shot that would really make the Rockets sweat in a 98-88 loss at Toyota Center on Sunday, the Magic's fifth loss in a row and fourth straight on this six-game road trip.
Orlando was simply struggling to put the ball in the hoop both in generating offense in the paint and in making the shots you expect any team to make.
That does not excuse some of the defense that occurred in the first quarter and the first half that helped the Rockets build a double digit lead that carried on throughout the game.
After that early lead from Orlando, Houston was able to step up its interior defense and generate fast break points. The Magic defense was concerned most with keeping a body on Dwight Howard and stopping James Harden from getting into thel ane and wreaking havoc. This strategy backfired as the Magic were digging in too much and allowing the Rockets open 3-pointers.
Houston made seven of 11 3-point attempts in the first quarter to open up that comfortable lead. The Rockets made just three more 3-poitners the rest of the game. That damage was done as the Magic had to adjust and then struggled to contain Harden — 27 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds, 7-for-17 shooting and 10-for-11 free throws — and Howard — 20 points and 22 rebounds.
The struggles defensively and then the struggles to get good shots to fall seemed to lead to some lagging energy on both ends of the floor. Orlando shot 27.7 percent in the first half and scored 38 points in the opening 24 minutes. The team finished shooting 34.4 percent for the game. Andrew Nicholson missed six of his eight first half field goals and several of those looks were relatively open.
Houston was consistently beating Orlando to loose balls and scaring Orlando out of the paint with the team's shot blocking. The Rockets had 10 blocks on the evening and held the Magic to 38 points in the paint (it ended up being two more than the Rockets).
Orlando finally got its offense going in the fourth quarter, trying hard to attack the offensive glass more and increase the effort and energy. It worked as the Magic slowly climbed back into the game. Give them the credit for trying to work their way back into this game. The Rockets found them very difficult to straight-up blowout.
The Magic defense did a better job forcing turnovers and getting back in transition to prevent those fast break opportunities. They may have given up more fouls, but they prevented the killer 3-pointers in which the Rockets rely so heavily on. Houston ended up shooting just 42.1 percent for the game.
Orlando just could not find the bottom of the net. Time and time again, there were hurried shots around the rim and in the paint and even on the perimeter. The ball would not cooperate with Orlando's intentions to make a comeback. One that was very much there.
Arron Afflalo scored 17 points on 6-for-17 shooting. Glen Davis had 18 points on 8-for-18 shooting and Jameer Nelson had 15 points on 5-for-12 shooting, although he mad four 3-pointers including a few in the fourth quarter that helped propel Orlando's comeback bid.
Those are not shooting numbers from key players that will mean the Magic will win. Throw in Houston's ability to get second chance opportunities with Nikola Vucevic out and it was just a very tall task to make up the deficit the Magic dug themselves.
Orlando has to make shots to win. This is not a team that will win very often when shooting worse than 40 percent, let alone worse than 35 percent. No comeback bid is going to succeed like that. The Magic brought the defensive effort needed a bit too late (or maybe the Rockets eased on the throttle and got sloppy).
Whatever it was, it added up to anotehr loss which only frustrated this team even more.