AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — The Orlando Magic know there will be plenty of nights in this compressed NBA season in which they will feel lethargic. They also know any team is bound to produce a bad performance sooner or later as it completes a pair of back-to-back games or an arduous stretch.
But this bad?
One evening removed from an emotional fourth-quarter comeback, the Magic looked spent and faded late as they lost 89-78 Monday to the Detroit Pistons in front of an announced crowd of just 8,120 fans at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
“I don’t even know how we were within shouting distance in the game,” coach Stan Van Gundy said afterward. “I really don’t.”
Indeed, from Orlando’s perspective, there was almost nothing to like about their sixth game in nine nights.
The Pistons’ backcourt dominated the Magic’s backcourt. Detroit outrebounded the Magic handily. And the Pistons even outscored the Magic in the paint.
“We can’t make any excuses,” said Dwight Howard, who finished with a team-high 19 points but collected just seven rebounds and fouled out late in the fourth quarter.
“They played harder than us. We didn’t play as hard, and that’s how we lost.”
Detroit shooting guard Ben Gordon had no trouble launching clean shots, usually over Jason Richardson or J.J. Redick, and scored 26 points and dished out six assists, both game-highs.
Rodney Stuckey, Gordon’s backcourt mate, finished with 14 points — 10 of them on free throws — and added four assists of his own.
Together, the Gordon-Stuckey tandem easily outperformed the Magic’s starting backcourt of Richardson and Jameer Nelson. Richardson and Nelson scored four points apiece and each went 1-for-5 from the field.
Gordon hit a key trey late off of a screen in the third quarter, elevating over Glen Davis as the shot clock expired. The basket put Detroit up 66-60 and seemed to deflate Orlando.
But the Magic were outplayed down low, too.
Pistons starting center Greg Monroe and 6-foot-7 forward Jason Maxiell combined for 19 points and 11 rebounds. Ben Wallace came in off the bench and helped contain Howard, too.
Maxiell helped swing the game’s momentum midway through the third quarter when he blocked one of Howard shot attempts from behind.
“To me,” said Pistons coach Lawrence Frank, “what changed the game was Jason Maxiell and Ben Wallace. I think they brought a ruggedness to us, a physical inside presence. I thought those guys brought a lot of intensity.”
Detroit (2-3) did pretty well against Orlando (4-2), all right.
The Pistons outrebounded the Magic 39 to 28.
The Pistons also scored 34 points in the paint, while the Magic had 30.
“You could always have excuses, but I think just tonight they came out and played really hard,” Magic power forward Ryan Anderson said. “They really attacked us and they had a ton of energy, and they used that to their advantage.”
In final quarter, the Magic closed the gap to 72-68 on a Chris Duhon 3-pointer off a pass from Howard.
But the Magic didn’t get any closer.
Van Gundy said his team “just collapsed defensively in the second half.”
“We literally did nothing,” Van Gundy added. “It was very disappointing.”
Detroit shot 50.0 percent from the field in the game, but no one hurt them more than Gordon.
With the Pistons leading 81-75 coming out of a timeout with 2:58 left in regulation, Gordon hit a pair of foul shots.
On Orlando’s ensuing offensive possession, Howard was called for a foul — his sixth — and was sent to the bench with 2:46 to go. His departure ended the Magic’s hopes of a comeback.
No one in the Magic locker room attributed the loss to the compressed schedule or to playing on the second night of a back-to-back.
And no one mentioned that the Pistons hadn’t played since Saturday.
Redick said afterward that it would be “a loser’s mentality” to cite fatigue as an excuse for the loss.
“It’s not by any stretch my mentality, and there’s no indication from anyone else that they have that mentality in this locker room,” he said. “I think that we have a good group right now. I think the guys are focused on winning. It was disappointing. Tonight was disappointing. It would’ve been a nice win.”
The Magic now have 16 more back-to-backs to go, and that does not include the set of three games on consecutive nights they will play Jan. 16-18.
“That’s the way this season’s going to be,” Van Gundy said. “So if you’re just going to write off all those nights, then you’re going to lose a lot of games.”
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