Steve Clifford deserves some blame for Orlando Magic’s Game 4 fourth quarter collapse

The Orlando Magic played well in Game 4. It will be up to Steve Clifford to make adjustments to fix what the beginning of the fourth quarter entailed.

Once again, one small period of time decimated the Orlando Magic’s hopes of winning a close game.

Through the first three quarters, the Orlando Magic seemed as if they were going to give themselves a chance to even the series with the Milwaukee Bucks. But an 18-2 run to start the fourth quarter put the Magic in a hole they were not able to recover from in a 121-106 loss.

There is not one particular reason that caused the Magic to give up the run to the Bucks. Markelle Fultz pointed to mistakes the team made throughout. Orlando had 16 turnovers in the game frittering away possessions. As the Bucks began their run and started hitting outside shots, the Magic tried to answer back with the kind of quick shots that the Bucks feast on.

Everyone had a part to play in the loss. And that includes coach Steve Clifford.

First, Clifford has done a great job with this Magic team, especially considering how depleted the roster is with injury. He has little choice when it comes to rotations and he has gotten them to compete and frustrate the top-seeded Bucks.

What the Magic have done is clearly very impressive.

But it is clear the Magic have struggled with the Bucks’ size throughout the series. Facing a three-point deficit in a must-win Game 4, Clifford gambled he could buy his starters more time. He decided to open the fourth quarter with Khem Birch, D.J. Augustin, Terrence Ross, Gary Clark and Evan Fournier.

That gamble did not work. The Bucks quickly scored eight points (to the Magic’s two on a Ross jumper) before he had to call timeout less than two minutes into the final frame. He brought Vucevic back in. But the dam was already gushing.

Orlando could not stop the Bucks’ scoring. And desperate for offense, Clifford downsized with Markell Fultz and D.J. Augustin sharing the backcourt for more than 6.5 minutes. That included the tail end of the Bucks’ 18-2 run as well as the Magic’s 17-5 run that got the deficit back to seven.

But it was too late. The lack of size, especially with Fournier struggling to keep up with Khris Middleton, allowed for the Bucks offense to explode to start the fourth quarter.

Khris Middleton led the Bucks’ charge scoring 18 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. The Bucks built a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter after only leading by three to start the final period.

That can not happen if the Magic want any chance to win. Especially in a must-win moment.

It was certainly a failure of execution on the Magic’s part. Their defense had largely worked throughout the game to that point. Some of it was certainly the Bucks making shots. Giannis Antetokounmpo gave Khris Middleton the directive to shoot until his arms fell off, giving him the confidence to fire away even over some occasionally good defense.

But Clifford made errors too.

All of his lineup changes focused on the offensive end and trying to generate points. Instead, he should have focused on the team’s strength — its defense — to stem the tide.

Strong defenders like Gary Clark (who had four 3-pointers in the game) and James Ennis sat on the bench until the 3:13 and 4:34 mark of the fourth quarter. Both players have been instrumental in the team’s defensive efforts throughout the series. Ennis especially has hounded Middleton and forced him into a terrible series.

Middleton was just 1 for 9 from the floor entering the fourth quarter. And Ennis’ high-pressure defense essentially allowed the other four Magic players to focus almost exclusively on walling up Antetokounmpo.

Clifford is going to have to make adjustments to make sure Middleton does not have another breakout performance. Ennis has done a good job of containing Middleton as he has only averaged 9 points through the first three games and three-quarters of the series. With the season on the line, Clifford should consider matching Middleton minute for minute.

The real question though is why he did not come to that conclusion before entering that fourth quarter.

Before the game, Clifford said that the weight of the game would cause him to shift his rotations some. He would have a shorter leash.

With the game so tight, he clearly played with fire some in taking Vucevic out to end the third quarter and start the fourth quarter. He relied on Fournier, a player the team has and should trust but has struggled mightily in this series.

He relied again on the D.J. Augustin/Markelle Fultz pairing. It has worked this season — lineups with the duo have a +11.2 net rating in 253 minutes including a 98.7 defensive rating. But that too has failed him. In this series, the Augustin/Fultz pairing has a -37.9 net rating in 27 minutes with an 124.6 defensive rating.

The Bucks are destroying the Magic when they share the floor, so there is no real reason why the two should be sharing the court.

Things that worked during the regular season have not worked as well in the playoffs. That requires quicker adjustments and recognition in a series with this tight of a margin for error.

That margin includes decisions from their coach. Clifford has to put his team in the best position to win. He has largely done that. But the bets and gambles he made in Game 4 did not pay off. His team did not come through for him.

He struggled to recognize this quickly and stop the bleeding. With their backs against the wall in Game 5, the Magic have to be nimble and go with what they know works for as long as they can.

The Magic played well in Game 4, and it will be up to Clifford to make adjustments to fix what the beginning of the fourth quarter entailed. The Magic showed the fight, they just have to find a way to close the deal.

Next: Orlando Magic struggle to answer their big questions

It will take everyone doing their part.

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