The Orlando Magic struggled defensively to keep the Oklahoma City Thunder out of the lane. They fell at home on late-game mistakes and pick-and-roll defense.
Toward the end of the third quarter, Ross hit a 3-pointer, then another 3-pointer, then a four-point play, then another 3-pointer, helping the Orlando Magic erase a late seven-point deficit and make the final 12 minutes a battle with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
By the final two minutes, it no longer mattered how much the Magic’s defense struggled for the previous three quarters. They had given themselves their chance to win the game, keeping it tight and fighting back to get within one with 4:58 left.
Then the wheels started to come off again. The defense got loose, fouling on back-to-back possessions on cheap reach-ins as the defense struggled to keep pace. Aaron Gordon missed two free throws with the Magic down one to give them their first lead of the game.
Evan Fournier, Markelle Fultz and Nikola Vucevic each had turnovers in the closing seconds. And Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross each missed critical shots that seemed forced. Orlando tightened up and could not break their defensive struggles.
Dennis Schroder put the game away with a 20-foot pull-up jumper with one minute to play to give the Thunder a six-point lead. Orlando was merely playing off desperation from there in falling 120-114 at the Amway Center on Wednesday.
Orlando could only look for answers in a poor defensive effort. An effort coach Steve Clifford said was not good and did not improve at any point during the course of the game. Thunder ball handlers, he said, got to their spots and the big-man rotation was late to challenge or unable to stop lob attempts over their head.
While the Magic found short bursts of defense enough to get back into the game, the Thunder always had the front foot. They took it to the Magic in the paint, shooting 60.5 percent from the floor. It was like that all game as the Thunder simply had the Magic’s number.
Orlando showed the fight to stay in the game. But ultimately the Magic’s own mistakes and poor defense doomed the team in the end.
NIKOLA VUCEVICC, Orlando Magic
There is a deeper side to this though. There were plenty of missed shots that Vucevic simply has to make that he has struggled with all year. There were some critical turnovers, including losing the ball when Chris Paul pulled the chair on him late. And there were just poor post-up decisions.
More distressingly, Nikola Vucevic lost contact with Nerlens Noel on several occasions, giving up several lobs to the basket. He struggled to track Mike Muscala on pops to the 3-point line, allowing the big man to hit all four of his 3-pointers for 14 points. His timing was just off everywhere. For a star player, the Magic needed him to elevate his game and he has struggled to hold that mantle.
EVAN FOURNIERG/F, Orlando Magic
His shot selection was generally poor. While he got a few runners to go down, he often took contested and hurried outside shots. Fournier struggled to get himself going offensively. But those mistakes only compounded with his decision making off the dribble. Fournier tallied seven turnovers for the game, making a lot of poor passes into traffic and generally getting stuck offensively.
His defense was not much better. The Oklahoma City Thunder had free reign to get into the paint and go wherever they wanted throughout the game. Fournier struggled to keep his man in front and had his share of lazy fouls as the defense struggled to contain the perimeter players.
TERRENCE ROSSG/F, Orlando Magic
Throughout the second half, when the Magic needed a bucket, Ross seemed able to provide one. His 26 points helped stave off any run from the Thunder to gain separation. In all, Ross made 8 of 16 shots and 5 of 11 3-pointers, including all five free throws. He was on fire.
The Magic turned to him trying to find some answer down the stretch. But the fire had worn out by that time. ross could not get that last shot to go in. With the Magic trailing by four points late, Ross did a great job to shake his man and get an open 3-pointer. But it fell no good. The margin for error was too thin.
MICHAEL CARTER-WILLIAMSPG, Orlando Magic
Carter-Williams finished with 15 points on 6-for-12 shooting, making a 3-pointer. He did not play the best defense that he always does, but he was disruptive. Or more disruptive than anyone else. That is just what Carter-Williams does.
He did get out of control on a few occasions, allowing his emotions to get the better of him. But that is the gamble the Magic make with him. And that is OK overall for Orlando. Carter-Williams made a clear positive impact on this game and the Magic are better for having him back.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER26-19, 7th West
The Orlando Magic should have a defense capable of slowing down that attack. They have done so throughout the season. And the defense just let them down. Over and over again, Chris Paul (19 points, six assists), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (18 points) and Dennis Schroder (31 points, 13-for-18 shooting and nine assists) got where they wanted. It felt like it was a parade of lobs for the Thunder.
The defense was certainly loose however. Oklahoma City had its share of turnovers too. The Thunder kept the Magic in this game with their mistakes and some of their defensive struggles. But they were few. Oklahoma City shot 60.5 percent from the floor and tallied 16 stocks for good measure. They were active and engaged throughout.
The Orlando Magic fall to 21-24 and are seventh in the Eastern Conference, 1.5 games ahead of the Brooklyn Nets. The Orlando Magic’s magic number to clinch a playoff spot is 34 Magic wins or 34 Detroit Pistons losses.
The Orlando Magic’s homestand continues Friday as they host the Boston Celtics.