The Magic never led in the second half against the Thunder on Friday night. You would be hard pressed to find a player hanging their head too low or a fan that was not excited about the effort the Magic put forth against the defending Western Conference champions.
That is what happens when a 27-point first-half deficit is cut to four with about four minutes left in the fourth quarter. Yes, the lowly Orlando Magic made the might Oklahoma City Thunder sweat.
That was about all the Magic could do however. The Thunder are still the Thunder. Kevin Durant is still Kevin Durant. And Russell Westbrook is still Russell Westbrook.
Oklahoma City snapped into action down the stretch. Defensively, the Thunder clamped down on a hot Arron Afflalo. And Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook each hit some big 3-pointers to help Oklahoma City stave off Orlando's rally for a 117-103 win at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Friday night.
Late game execution has been a theme all season for the Magic. The team with the more talented players who were able to create for themselves and for others won. It was no coincidence that the team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was able to get good shots and make difficult shots and the team with Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo was unable to do so.
No knock on Nelson and Afflalo for that statement.
Getting to that point where it would be a close game however was one of the better efforts we have seen from the Magic this year. Orlando adjusted defensively and opted to switch just about any screen involving Kevin Durant. With Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless being pretty much interchangeable with their length and speed, this bothered Durant and largely kept him frustrated.
Durant had six turnovers in the game and a sure way for any team to make a large comeback like Orlando did is to force turnovers and get out in transition. That is what Orlando seemed to do in the second half and the lead dissipated as the the team stopped fouling on defense and continued to make shots at a high rate.
Orlando was aggressive all night on offense and got to the line for 21 free throws and shot a decent percentage for the game. Really, the 27-point hold was built because the Magic were trying to keep up a torrid scoring pace while playing porous defense for much of the first half.
Oklahoma City was shooting around 70 percent after one quarter and the offense did not subside in the second quarter. The key difference was the Thunder getting to the line. They ended up with 43 free throw attempts for the game. However, the Thunder uncharacteristically missed 14 free throws and certainly the game would have been really out of hand if the Thunder had shot free throws to their average and killed any Magic momentum.
Give Orlando lots of credit for taking advantage of that opportunity and Oklahoma City's growing disinterest in taking it to the basket in the third quarter with the lead at such a wide margin.
The Magic kept attacking throughout the game and kept grinding away. It was the kind of professional, never-give-up effort Jacque Vaughn is looking from his young team. it was very much an effort to be proud of as an organization — minus falling behind by 27 points in the first place.
Arron Afflalo took advantage of the smaller Reggie Jackson on him throughout the fourth quarter until Oklahoma City reloaded on his way to 20 points. Jameer Nelson had 26 points and seven assists, making 5 of 12 3-pointers. Nikola Vucevic had 21 points and 14 rebounds, doing a good job attacking the boards on both ends.
It was a great effort from Orlando.
To win though, the Magic needed a little more defensive resistance. They needed to execute at the end of the game. They needed to limit live-ball turnovers to keep the Thunder from getting out in transition.
Regardless of the age of this team, you still want to see it pull out victories when the chance for a win is there. The Magic again could not do that despite a great effort and an inspiring comeback. The final result though still shows that the Thunder are a championship-caliber team and the Magic are not.