The referee was not counting out loud, but the clock was surely racing in Maurice Harkless’ head as he set to inbound the ball with 8.9 seconds left. As Arron Afflalo came around a screen and was guarded after the Raptors switched on the curl, it was clear he would not be open and Harkless would run out of time.
And so Harkless signaled timeout. It seemed like it was in time. If the referee had only seen the signal. The official informed Harkless he had not heard Harkless call timeout and whistled the Magic for a five-second inbounds violation — yes, another one — that cost the Magic an opportunity to tie the game. The Raptors flubbed a few inbounds opportunities, nearly turning the ball over as the Magic frantically tried to foul.
Toronto iced the game at the foul line, shutting out Orlando’s second-half rally and securing a 98-93 win at Amway Center on Sunday night. The Magic brought the energy and the effort to the game just a bit too late, just like Harkless’ timeout signal.
Lest, you put all the blame on the young small forward, who turned in a superb game with 14 points on six-for-nine shooting, remember it is a 48-minute game. The Magic had trouble remembering that after their slow start forced such a wild comeback.
“You can’t put the whole game on one play,” Harkless said. “We’re down 20 at halftime. We can’t do that. We can’t let ourselves get down. You just got to learn from it.”
The Magic trailed by as much as 21 points and pulled even in the fourth quarter, creating a difficult back-and-forth game. The Magic had to keep coming back time and time again and expend energy time and time again to keep the game close. The Raptors were ready to attack from the get-go and took the big lead and control of the game. The Magic never led in the second half.
They got close though before the Raptors hit them with another punch and took a nine-point lead on an 11-2 run late in the fourth quarter. The Magic had one more rally left in them but it all just came too late. It was one hole too many. Time ran out quite literally.
“It’s frustrating, but I think that’s not the play that decided the game,” Nikola Vucevic said. “It was us getting down 20 at the start of the game. That’s not the way we want to start games. They jumped us. They were playing well offensively, we weren’t getting stops. We made it back int he game, but it’s tough to come back and keep it at that level always. We got away with it a couple times, but we’re not always going to be able to do that.”
That first half was the biggest hole the Magic left themselves and one they never quite got away from. Without that poor first half — particularly the second quarter — there was no deficit to climb out of and the Magic would have had a nice effort.
Toronto had a 57-38 lead at the end of the first half, holding Orlando to 44.4 percent shooting and without a 3-pointer. The Raptors were the clear aggressors, getting to the line 19 times — they finished with 27 free throw attempts for the game to the Magic’s 14 — and had a 28-20 advantage in the paint. Jonas Valanciunas was matching Nikola Vucevic in the paint nearly shot for shot.
Vucevic was really the only legitimate and consistent offensive option for Orlando in the first half. He scored 18 of his 22 points in the first half, making 10 of 13 field goals for the game and finishing with 10 rebounds. He was efficient and patient in the post. The Raptors denied him the ball more in the second half, opening things up for Victor Oladipo, Jameer Nelson and Tobias Harris.
For the first half, however, it was all the Magic’s struggles on the defensive end that colored everything. It was not as simple as turning on a switch, but it might as well have been.
“We actually played defense,” Oladipo said. “We were more crisp with our defense both from the bigs and the guards. We were finally on the same page. I think in the first half, we were all kind of off just a little bit, slow to react. We just picked it up in the second half. Now we just have to make that a consistent thing.”
Toronto scored only 41 points in the second half, shooting 39.4 percent from the floor. The Raptors were far less effective and the Magic found some defensive energy to get stops. That helped calm the offense down tremendously with Jameer Nelson leading the way. Nelson scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half, doing much of his damage in the third quarter as Orlando went on a 16-5 run through the middle of the third quarter to bring the deficit within single digits.
Here, the Magic got a big boost from Dewayne Dedmon. His lone field goal tied the Magic at 80 with the Raptors. But it was his block of DeMar DeRozan which seemed to energize the team defensively and put some fear in the Raptors. Toronto was looking for him after that massive pack and not scoring in the paint anymore.
During Dedmon’s 12:23 stretch on the floor in the second half, the Raptors shot 46.7 percent, had just two points in the paint and went to the line for only three free throw attempts. The Magic used that time to get all the way back into the game. The energy and spark was given.
Whether that spark actually should have been needed is another question entirely. The Magic had just put themselves too far behind the 8-ball. An awful defensive second quarter against a good team left them scrambling to execute at the end of the game. The chance to win was there certainly, it just slipped out of reach.
“I think overall it just speaks to how prepared you are at the beginning of the game and where your mind frame is,” Vaughn said. “It is tough to climb out of a hole when you dig it against a good team. We found a way thought, which is good to see. We continue to support each other and we found a way to dig out and gave ourselves a chance.”
Lesson learned as the season now ticks away.