SAN ANTONIO — The first six preseason exhibitions gave the Orlando Magic some reasons for hope on defense. Orlando had limited opponents to 40.7 percent shooting from the field. After the Magic’s struggles last season, the team was pleased with its apparent improvement, even if it occurred in October.
Tuesday night hurled the Magic back to earth with the beginning of the regular season looming.
The San Antonio Spurs carved up the Magic’s defense, shooting 61 percent from the field in the first half as the Magic fell 123-101 at AT&T Center. Spurs players beat Magic defenders down the floor repeatedly, resulting in easy baskets.
“Pop was great in giving us a posterior whipping,” Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said, referring to his mentor, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
“It gives ol’ Coach something to harp on this week for us to realize we still have some work to do.”
Vaughn began the trip to Texas by taking a page out of Popovich’s playbook.
Faced with a largely meaningless exhibition game, Vaughn decided to have veteran point guard Jameer Nelson skip the one-game road trip and remain in Central Florida to rest. Tobias Harris, who aggravated a sore left ankle Sunday, also stayed in Orlando.
Nik Vucevic made the trip but had his second consecutive game off after he was a bit sore over the weekend. Vucevic said he doesn’t have any significant injury.
Last regular season, Popovich sent Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green back to San Antonio before the final game of a six-game road trip to give them rest. The NBA fined the Spurs $250,000 for resting the players.
Of course, no fine is forthcoming from the NBA for keeping Nelson in Orlando for a preseason exhibition.
But it reflects one of the lessons Vaughn has learned from Popovich.
Vaughn played for Popovich for three seasons in San Antonio and then spent two seasons as a Spurs assistant coach before the Magic hired him in July 2012.
On Tuesday night, an announced crowd of 16,326 serenaded Vaughn with a roar when the public-address announcer introduced him.
The evening worsened after that.
In the second quarter, the Spurs made 17 of their 24 shot attempts.
The Magic continued to turn the ball over, finishing the game with 19 giveaways.
“Their ability to get out in transition and convert, along with turnovers, is something that we can take care of,” Vaughn said.
Rookie guard Victor Oladipo, who started at point guard in Nelson’s absence, struggled early but played a bit better in the second half.
He finished with 22 points and had six assists to go along with five turnovers.
The Magic looked exhausted in the second and third quarters.
Late in the third, Green missed a 3-pointer, but no Orlando player chased down the loose ball when it clanked off the rim.
Green easily corralled the rebound, and a few seconds later, Marco Belinelli made a wide-open jumper to put the Spurs ahead 95-62.
The Magic’s passivity was reflected in their low free-throw total. They attempted just nine foul shots.
The scene was reminiscent of the late stages of last season.
The Magic finished 2012-13 ranked 25th in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to score 106.7 points per 100 possessions. The Magic also allowed opponents to make 46.3 percent of their shot attempts.
On Tuesday, the Spurs hit the 100-point mark late in the third quarter on a wide-open 3-pointer by Green.
Solomon Jones, an NBA journeyman from Mount Dora hoping to make the Magic’s regular-season roster as a reserve big man, finished with four points, seven rebounds and four steals. But he also had four turnovers.
Already playing without Parker, the Spurs started resting their key players late in the third quarter, and San Antonio’s field-goal percentage started to decline.
The Magic’s rough night begged a question: Was their performance the product of the preseason doldrums with three key players out, or was it a sign of things to come?
Only one more exhibition game remains.
The answer will arrive soon enough.
The Magic will open their regular season on Oct. 29 against the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis.
“We just have to do a better job of balancing our ability to get back, and that responsibility falls on the guards as well as the bigs.” Magic shooting guard Arron Afflalo said.
“We definitely have got some work to do.”
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