Two stretches of the game have come to define the Magic in recent weeks — the start of the two halves. No matter how the Magic want to cut it, they are not winning these two parts and are finding themselves in a hole that is becoming increasingly difficult to climb out of.
After seeing a three-point deficit with 2:20 to play in the first half grow to 12 thanks to some brilliant teamwork from this new-look Atlanta squad, Orlando continued to lay an egg with the starters in, unable to cut into the deficit until Atlanta stretched the lead out to 19 with 8:14 left. From there the uphill climb that started with a 16-2 run right out of the gates led to a frustrating evening for a Magic team that still seemed so close, yet so far in games like these.
The Magic had the lead down to eight at several times in the fourth quarter, but the Hawks seemed to have an answer or a stop to slow down the Magic's momentum in an 86-80 win at Amway Center on Wednesday. It seemed all of Orlando's momentum in a 3-2 road trip came to a screeching halt as the team struggled to score and did not do enough to get the win, but did just enough to keep things relatively interesting if they could find that spark for a short while.
The frustration was visible early in the third quarter when Jacque Vaughn called a timeout with 8:16 left in the quarter and Orlando down 17 points. Vaughn subbed out all five players on the floor (Orlando's starting lineup) and left Glen Davis visibly upset on the floor, assumedly yelling at himself for his poor play.
"[The starts are] killing us. It’s killing us," Glen Davis said. "As captain, I take it upon myself in situations like this to get us going. I am thinking about the last five games and the things we have been doing, I don’t remember the last time we’ve been down like that. I think about how I played. I wasn’t here today. Point blank. Didn’t show up today."
Davis finished the game with 10 points and seven rebounds, but shot 2 for 11 from the floor and struggled to defend Josh Smith (16 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks) and even Zaza Pachulia at times (seven points, nine rebounds).
It was not Davis' finest moment in a Magic uniform. And his showing of frustration on the bench was not directed at anyone (it seemed) and more directed at himself. The frustration he showed in that moment was certainly symbolic of the frustration the Magic had throughout the game.
The five subs did provide some spark. While Jacque Vaughn said he was not sending a message, instead opting to put out the five players who would give the team the best chance to come back in the clichest terms, the message might have been received anyway as the Magic's starters came back in and brought the lead into single digits and got the game back to 12. Orlando lost no ground in the third quarter.
That still left the game there for the taking in the fourth quarter if they could just get a shot to go down. The Magic did not do enough of that even though they found the bottom of the net in making 10 of 20 shots. Six turnovers, and 11 fourth-quarter points off those six turnovers, may have eventually done the Magic in for this one.
Orlando's turnovers, like it did against Atlanta in the first meeting, did this team. The Hawks scored 24 points off the Magic's 16 turnovers. A number that was certainly too high for this team's liking, particularly with Atlanta generally doing a good job closing down passing lanes to cutters and recovering quickly to contest shots.
"Obviously the most glaring opportunities came at the end of the half when it was a four-point game and you’re going to the half down 12 instead of four," Arron Afflalo said. "That makes it an entirely different game and an entirely difference comfort zone for them. I honestly don’t think they felt any discomfort tonight. I didn’t get that feeling from them. Can’t discredit them for having that attitude. Next game will be different, not speaking about the outcome but the way we play."
That late second quarter run that stretched the lead from three to 12 included two turnovers that led to runouts and easy points. The first on a E'Twaun Moore pass intercepted by Jeff Teague for an easy layup. And the second on a bad Gustavo Ayon pass that led to a clear path for Josh Smith. Frankly, after those two plays on Orlando's deficit should have been larger.
And it felt like the deficit should have been much bigger throughout the first half than it actually was.
So, again, Orlando was allowed to hang in the game but could never get over the hump. The Hawks were not world beaters in the second half — the Magic were +6 in the first half and ended the first quarter only down 20-15 actually — this game literally came down to the hill the Magic had to climb to stay competitive.
The hole and the desperation the Magic had to play with cost them too much. And left them having to play perfect to make up for it. In games that come down to making shots — Orlando shot 38.3 percent while Atlanta shot 43.8 percent, making only four more field goals in one less attempt (8 points, in other words) — those mistakes prove extremely costly.
"We’ve been down a lot in every first quarter at least," Jameer Nelson said struggling to put a finger on where things are going wrong at the beginning of games. "It’s been a hole for us. You exert so much energy doing that. I can’t put my finger on it. I guess we’ll have to watch film and figure it out."