Free throw frustrations galvanize Orlando Magic in fight for respect

The Orlando Magic seemed to allow frustration to boil over as their inability to get to the foul line gave into frustration about their place in the league.

Evan Fournier was trying to front Nikola Jokic in the post in the middle of overtime. The Orlando Magic were in the middle of a battle with the Denver Nuggets and neither team was trying to give an inch. Evan Fournier certainly was not on the block.

The officials called Fournier for a foul, his sixth. And he was clearly not happy.

He stormed off the court screaming at himself — or maybe at the officials — as he had fouled out. He appeared to direct an expletive at the officiating on a frustrating night and got a second technical foul for his trouble.

With two minutes to play in overtime, the Magic trailed by one point. The last thing they needed was this loss of composure. Murray completed a four-point play, making the technical free throw and then draining a 3-pointer, to send the Magic into scramble mode.

It was a frustrating end to a night that saw Fournier drain six 3-pointers and lead the team in scoring. But the anger had grown too much. What more could Fournier do but fight?

What more could the Magic do?

It seemed nothing could overcome the deficit the Magic were facing. Not on the scoreboard but at the foul line. A game where the Magic played extremely well seemed undercut. Simply from their inability to get to the line and the small things the Nuggets got from the officials.

Whether the team wants to admit it or not, it was a turning point in the game. Even though the Magic gave themselves a chance to win at the end, they squandered it again.

That frustration was still evident after the game with Fournier asking what more he could have done to show the officials he was fighting without fouling.

“It’s the same thing every day,” Fournier said. “Every day we come in and we see on the board we’re 30th in free throw attempts. We’re the team that never complains and every time we say something, we get a technical. It’s terrible.”

The free throw disparity was hard to miss. As Fournier said, the box score says it all.

The Nuggets shot 37 free throws in the game. The Magic shot just eight, and none until the fourth quarter. There was a sarcastic applause when Jonathan Isaac finally drew a shooting foul.

Who could blame them for being a bit frustrated?

Orlando is indeed last in the league in free throw attempts. Their 19.9 free throw rate is by far the worst in the league. And it has been that way all year — and really for much of the last six years the team has been near the bottom of the league at getting to the foul line.

It has been a problem the Magic have tried to resolve for a while now. It is something coach Steve Clifford has mentioned. But it is hard to figure out exactly how the Magic are supposed to get to the line more.

There were certainly calls for the Magic to be a bit more aggressive. In Wednesday’s loss to the Nuggets, the Magic took only 35 shots in the paint, making only 18 of them.

Then again, Orlando was doing a much better job in this game working inside out, getting the ball into the paint and kicking out to the perimeter.

The Magic shot 49 3-pointers out of 95 field goals with 30 assists on 45 field goal makes. They were moving the ball. But that 3-point attempt split likely kept the team from attacking the basket enough to get fouls.

The frustration finally seemed to boil over now.

It did so with the broadcasters as much as the players. Brian Hill likely saying in the clip above what Magic players and coaches could not.

And some players seemed to think it was about something more.

“It’s horrible. It’s horrible,” Aaron Gordon said. “It’s just tick tack after tick tack that they get and we come down and same type of play. I feel like the refs are more worried about what’s on the front of the jersey than watching the actual game.”

Whether that is true or not remains to be seen. Clifford deflected all questions about officiating from the media to his need to watch the tape to determine if there was really such a discrepancy or to talk about his team’s defense.

In that sense, Clifford is absolutely right. The Magic’s defense on pick and rolls was poor throughout the evening. The Nuggets paraded into the lane and were able to kick out to the perimeter for open shots or drives. Denver shot 54.9 percent from the floor for the game.

Orlando’s defense was strong enough just to keep them in the game.

As if to hammer that point home, every player also noted the team’s defense had to be better. The officiating and the free throw discrepancy was a reason but not the primary reason for the loss. Diagnosing that is a sign of the team’s seriousness.

Aaron Gordon’s other point that the team is not getting respect was the first outward sign of frustration of a team trying to shed its past. This is a new Magic team that is demanding something more of themselves. It seemed Wednesday that frustration grew because they made the effort and are getting unnecessary roadblocks put in front of them.

The Magic are still fighting for respect.

But they cannot let that frustration boil over as it did Wednesday. It was a rare, but important moment.

Understanding the gravity of the moment and the gravity of several calls, it was easy to see frustration begin to take over. Even if no one will admit it. And that hurt the Magic more than anything, even with the massive free throw disparity.

Orlando still has to learn to control what it can control.

“We can look at all these other things — did they step out of bounds, the foul differential and all of that — the bottom line is we couldn’t defend the high pick and roll,” Steve Clifford said. “That is a hard thing to do, but we’ve got to do a lot better than that.”

The Magic have largely had a good record in close games this year. And they have played a lot of them. Seeing the team lose some of its poise late in the game was not characteristic of the team at all.

Sure, the Magic have looked a bit rattled holding onto leads. But they have always responded positively. They even did that in the fourth quarter. Just not in overtime.

In overtime, Nikola Vucevic committed a silly reach in foul (after it appeared Jamal Murray stepped out of bounds twice without a call) that sent Murray to the line to ice the game and put the Nuggets up five. That was a blown chance to win the game and had much more to do with the final outcome than the accumulation of calls during the game.

Clifford did not feel the team lost its composure. It just came down to whether the team could get stops or not. And consistently they could not. That is a fair analysis.

But this game had a lot of frustration. It was not the same as a failure to execute. Something more was at work.

“It’s frustrating,” Fournier said. “We’re fighting hard. It’s ok to not get the calls. sometimes it’s not fair. you can’t have that. It’s impossible.”

Orlando is still fighting that uphill battle. The team can certainly point to its own flaws and mistakes for many of its losses.

Wednesday, knowing they were facing a major deficit and officiating calling things tightly, the Magic were rushed and hurried throughout overtime. It was hard not to notice the change in demeanor. And Fournier’s final foul and ejection seemed to take away some focus and also help regain it.

If there is one that that feels certain about this team, it is their ability to fight back. These moments can galvanize the group.

And so the next big question is if the team wants to earn respect, will they respond to this frustration with a positive effort Friday and put this behind them?

The only way to respond is to win.