By John Denton
Oct. 20, 2017
BROOKLYN – The Orlando Magic’s hopes of building some much-needed early-season momentum hit a major snag on Friday night when they first lost standouts Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton to injuries and then lost to the rebuilding Brooklyn Nets.
Gordon couldn’t play because of a sore left ankle and Payton left just before halftime with a strained hamstring – injuries that could keep them out multiple games. Those losses left the Magic lacking firepower and looking very little like the team that won in impressive fashion in Wednesday’s season-opener. And when what was left of Orlando’s defense couldn’t contain the basketball defensively, allowing 60 points in the paint, the Magic fell 126-121 to the Nets at Barclays Center.
Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier – Orlando’s most reliable players of the past three seasons – tried keeping the Magic in the game with some stellar offensive play – often after setting one another up with passes. Vucevic made a career-best six 3-pointers and finished with a career-high 41 points and 12 rebounds in 35 minutes. Fournier, Vucevic’s best friend on the Magic over the past three years, added 22 points, nine rebounds and five assists. His potential game-tying 3-pointer with two seconds left missed. As the final horn sounded, a frustrated Fournier slammed the ball to the Barclays Center floor.
Jonathon Simmons, an offseason addition from the San Antonio Spurs, scored 10 points and rookie Jonathan Isaac contributed nine points and three assists, but it wasn’t nearly enough on a night when the Magic were mostly disjointed on both ends of the floor.
Brooklyn, which fell 140-131 in its opener in Indiana on Wednesday, hit 50 percent of its shots with nine 3-pointers. DeMarre Carroll (17 points), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (15 points), D’Angelo Russell (17 points and six assists), Spencer Dinwiddie (16 points) and Trevor Booker (17 points) took turns bedeviling the Magic’s defense inside and out.
Vucevic and Fournier drilled consecutive 3-pointers late in fourth quarter to get the Magic within 117-116 of the Nets. However, they would never be able to overtake Brooklyn after Russell banked in a shot as he was fouled and Booker nailed two free throws.
Terrence Ross (11 points) hit a 3-pointer with 13.7 seconds remaining to get Orlando within 122-121. However, Brooklyn’s Allen Crabbe sank two free throws to boost the Nets’ lead back to three seconds later. Fournier’s potential tying 3-pointer with two seconds remaining hit off the back iron to give the Nets their first win of the season.
Vucevic topped his previous career high of 37 points set in April of 2015 against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He had made two 3-pointers in a game twice before in his career, but tripled that total on Friday. His eight attempted threes were twice as many as he had ever tried in a game.
Orlando beat Miami 116-109 on Wednesday at the Amway Center and was trying to go 2-0 for the first time since the 2012-13 season. In the 28-plus year history of the franchise, the Magic have been 2-0 to open the season just seven times.
Orlando was without Gordon because of an injury that he suffered late in the second quarter of Wednesday’s win against Miami. Gordon, the Magic’s leading scorer in the preseason, tested out the ankle before the game, but decided that he was in too much pain to play.
Gordon said his ankle injury limited his effectiveness in Wednesday’s second half and he didn’t want to endure the same sort of thing on Friday. He said he is holding out hopes that he will be able to return on Saturday.
“I wasn’t aggressive and passive and wasn’t running as fast as I could (on Wednesday). Adrenaline was carrying me through,’’ said Gordon, Orlando’s leading scorer in the preseason. “That’s not how I want to be all season, so I’ll take tonight (off) and see how I’m feeling (Saturday in Cleveland).’’
Payton had four points and four assists in 14 first-half minutes, but he strained his left hamstring just before the intermission. His injury was severe enough to rule him out before the start of the second half, suggesting that he could be out for an extended period of time.
Jonathan Isaac, the no. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, got the first start of this pro career in place of Gordon. Foul trouble hurt him in the first half, before he got on track in the third quarter and started playing with confidence.
Down three at the half and having troubles at both ends of the floor, Orlando played an inspired third quarter to take a 91-89 lead into the final 12 minutes. Simmons drilled a 3-pointer just before the third-period horn, but it was Vucevic who was the backbone of the team just after halftime. He drilled his fifth 3-pointer and scored 11 points in the third period to buoy the Orlando offense.
Orlando will be play its first of 15 back-to-backs on Saturday when it faces LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Cleveland. The Cavs will be in a similar situation having played in Milwaukee on Friday night. As if the prospect of playing twice in as many nights wasn’t already daunting enough, the Magic have dropped 17 games in a row to the Cavaliers. That’s the NBA’s longest active losing streak between two teams.
Orlando’s problems of last season – allowing far too much dribble penetration – returned in the first half and was the primary reason for the 58-55 deficit at intermission. Sparked by the ball-handling and playmaking of Russell (nine points and four assists), the Nets had 32 points in the painted area in the first two quarters of the game.
Some of the Magic’s troubles were likely a result of Gordon – the team’s top defender – being out of the game. Isaac played just 4 ½ minutes in the first half, but picked up three fouls. Mario Hezonja, who is now playing power forward in Orlando’s small-ball lineups, picked up three fouls and missed all four of his shots in 9:45 of the first half.
The Magic’s two most reliable players, Vucevic and Fournier, kept them afloat in the first half. Vucevic, who worked all summer to extend his shooting range, had 21 points and four 3-pointers by halftime. Fournier was equally aggressive, scoring 15 points, grabbing seven rebounds and handing out two assists. One of those assists came when he drove the lane, drew the defense and kicked the ball out for a Vucevic 3-pointer from the wing.
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