Still close, still so far


The Magic are certainly on a bit of a roll right now. Winners of four of five games entering Friday’s matchup, Orlando had put behind one of the worst stretches of play any team has had in recent years.

None of that would matter with an old nemesis returning to the Amway Center. These are different teams, but the specter of last year’s bitter postseason exit still hangs over. The offensive futility of that six-game series had to be weighing at least on Stan Van Gundy’s mind as he tried to find a way to break down Atlanta’s defense and give his team a shot.

For 46 minutes, the offense was muddied up and stuck. The Magic kept the game close enough to be within striking distance, but never near control. Then the Magic finished the game on an 8-0 run. Atlanta looked a bit tentative playing with the lead. Jameer Nelson woke up and abused Jeff Teague, getting to the basket on his schedule and finishing off with a missed layup that Dwight Howard could finish with a second left to force overtime.

In an instant things clicked.

In that same instant, the Hawks found a new way to expose the Magic in an 89-87 overtime win at Amway Center.

Hedo Turkoglu played goat for most of the game, then hero in the fourth quarter, and then committed three turnovers in overtime to give Atlanta extra possessions. Then free throws came into play as Marvin Williams split a pair of free throws following a Ryan Anderson 3-pointer to give Atlanta a two-point lead. Jason Richardson, shooting an awful 59.4 percent from the foul line this year, split a pair of free throws.

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As if the Magic needed another chance, Zaza Pachulia split two more free throws. A two-point deficit once again stared down the Magic with 10 seconds left.

Orlando ran the same curl play for Jason Richardson that netted numerous wins last year — the Miracle on Church Street against Philadelphia for instance — and opportunities for wins — like the shot that rattled in and out Monday against the Clippers. Richardson once again got a pretty good look. And the shot once again missed. Ryan Anderson dug out a rebound and gave Jameer Nelson one last opportunity.

No dice.

This is still a make shots league, and the Magic, needing desperately to fight back did not have enough shots to pull out the win. Joe Johnson took advantage of those turnovers and a continued mismatch against Jameer Nelson. Nelson defended him as well as he could, but Johnson was still able to get his shot off.

The Magic were very urgent and energetic at the end of regulation and then again at the end of the overtime. It made you wonder where that was the rest of the game. It literally felt like something suddenly clicked with the team down eight and about two minutes to play.

The rest of the game offensively looked like it did last season in the Playoffs — stagnant, slow and ineffective.

Orlando shot 42.2 percent from the floor and were playing as unimaginatively as could be. Dwight Howard was catching the ball in stand-still positions and getting pushed around by Zaza Pachulia. Howard had 18 points and 18 rebounds. But he shot just 8 for 15 and had five turnovers.

The turnovers and the lack of ball movement became the story and the reason for the Magic’s poor offensive showing. Orlando committed 17 turnovers, with six coming from Hedo Turkoglu in one of his most puzzling games this year.

Alarmingly also, the Magic had just 14 assists on 35 field goals. This year, Orlando is averaging an assist on 60.4 percent of the team’s field goals. Tonight it was just 40 percent. Not a good ratio at all.

It was a sign of how the ball went tot he first option and everyone stood around and watched. For the most part it was the ball going into Dwight Howard in post positions where he was pushed off his spot and forced to match Pachulia muscle-to-muscle. That is not necessarily best for Dwight’s game and is certainly what Pachulia wanted, especially without double team help.

Orlando failed to get its 3-point shooters open with the ball getting stuck so much throughout the game.

What worked so well in the fourth quarter was that jolt of energy and that willingness to attack and create in the fourth quarter that came from Jamer Nelson (15 points, albeit on 7-for-20 shooting), Jason Richardson (14 points on 5-for-10 shooting despite those misses late in the game) and Ryan Anderson (who scored 12 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter).

It proved that the Magic need energy and aggression in their attack to get things rolling. Otherwise, this offense is just pedestrian and, quite possibly, worse than that.

This has been the problem all season.

What has not changed is that this team does not always get the ball movement and energy it needs. And to beat a team that is pretty disciplined defensively, you have to be able to move the ball and attack. Orlando just was not doing that tonight.

And, thus, the team could not take the opportunities to win when presented with them.