CLEVELAND — Orlando Magic players and coaches cannot wait for late Friday afternoon to arrive. Sometime around 5 p.m., give or take an hour or so, the NBA will release its officiating report for the final two minutes of the Magic’s heartbreaking loss Thursday to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Specifically, the Magic will scan the document for a play that drew a whistle with 11.2 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
With Orlando clinging to a 103-102 lead, Cleveland point guard Isaiah Thomas drove into the lane, and Orlando’s Shelvin Mack grabbed at the ball. Magic players and coaches thought Mack had forced a jump ball. Instead, crew chief Kane Fitzgerald called a foul on Mack, sending Thomas to the free-throw line.
Thomas made both foul shots, and Elfrid Payton missed a contested layup over Tristan Thompson with 3.2 seconds to go, resulting in one of the Magic’s most frustrating losses of their disastrous season, a painful 104-103 defeat at Quicken Loans Arena.
“I just feel like I made a basketball play,” Mack said. “I guess we’ve just got to wait and see until tomorrow when we get the two-minute report.”
Aaron Gordon, who saw the play unfold from inches away, offered a less diplomatic take.
“It wasn’t a foul,” Gordon said. “Shelvin was there with great defense. He tied the ball up. It was a jump ball. But it was the world champions in their building, and we don’t have that respect, so they’re not going to give us that call. But it’s a jump ball. It’s not a foul. I don’t know. It’s crazy that it came down to that — that they [the referees] made themselves so much an integral part of the game down the stretch.”
Gordon incorrectly referred to the Cavs as the “world champions” when, in fact, the Cavs are the defending Eastern Conference champions. But he also made another point that was spot-on: He and his teammates lost primarily because they played poorly in the first half and allowed the Cavaliers to build a 63-40 lead.
Orlando didn’t hold a lead all game until Mack sank a floater with 31.5 seconds left. The basket put Orlando ahead 103-102 and set the stage for two decisive sequences — Mack’s controversial foul and the Magic’s last-gasp attempt to regain the lead.
After Thomas made his final free throw, Magic coach Frank Vogel declined to use one of his two remaining timeouts because he knew the Cavaliers would sub out Thomas, who is a defensive liability at 5-feet-9. Payton already had scored 19 points on 9-of-16 shooting, and Vogel figured, correctly, that Payton could generate a solid look at the hoop even if the Cavs switched onto him.
The Magic’s Bismack Biyombo set a screen on Thomas, prompting the Cavs’ 6-foot-10 center, Tristan Thompson, to guard Payton.
Payton penetrated into the lane, spun counterclockwise and unleashed a right-handed layup attempt that clanged off the back iron.
“It was tightly contested, but I feel like I make that shot 99 out of 100,” Payton said. “Just off just a tad bit.”
With the playoffs far out of reach, even in mid-January, the Magic (13-32) are attempting to gain some self-confidence. The Cavaliers (27-17), on the other hand, are trying to recover from a maddening stretch in which they’ve lost nine of their last 13 games.
After Thursday’s final buzzer, LeBron James said his team is in “Strugglesville.”
He, too, struggled. He finished with 16 points, six assists and an uncharacteristic six turnovers. And he and his Cavs teammates made only one of their 17 attempts from 3-point range during the second half.
Those miscues and misses helped the Magic take the lead and nearly complete their best comeback win of the season.
“We’re not into moral victories, especially at this part of the season,” Payton said. “We’ve got to find a way to win these games, pull these games out as much as possible.”
Payton and his teammates felt frustrated when they returned to their locker room after the game.
From their perspective, the officiating report cannot be released soon enough.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/magicblog and follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaBRobbins.