The Orlando Magic’s six-game win streak came to a crashing halt on Thursday night.
How they respond moving forward could be more crucial to their playoff hopes than the loss.
Wayne Ellington hit seven of Detroit’s 17 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 25 points as the Pistons rolled to a 115-98 win over the Magic at Little Caesars Arena in a matchup of teams in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff chase.
The Magic were looking to take a big step toward securing the franchise’s first playoff berth since the 2011-12 season. They started the day in eighth place and could have leapfrogged the Pistons into seventh with a win.
Instead, they find themselves outside the playoff cutline. Their loss, coupled with Miami’s win over Dallas, shuffled the two Florida teams in the standings for the second time in three days.
“They had a toughness to them that we weren’t ready for,” Magic forward Aaron Gordon said. “It’s disappointing. Every loss is disappointing. But we have an opportunity to make it up in Indiana, so that’s what we’ll do.”
Gordon finished with 20 points while D.J. Augustin scored 18, Evan Fournier had 13, and Nikola Vucevic finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds for his 56th double-double of the season.
Blake Griffin scored 20 points while Andre Drummond recorded 18 points, 18 rebounds and six blocks for the Pistons, who ended a three-game losing streak. They also extended their home win streak to 10 — tying the fourth-longest streak in the NBA this season — as they won the season series with the Magic 3-1.
Pistons coach Dwane Casey talked before the game about his team’s need to approach each of its remaining eight games like a playoff contest, and they certainly did against the Magic.
The Pistons outplayed the Magic from the start, with Drummond establishing himself as an inside force. He finished the first quarter with six points, five rebounds and four block shots.
“Dwane had them more ready than I had our team. They set the tone for that game with their first-quarter defense,” Clifford said. “I’ve got to help our guys out more with play-calling and readiness to play at the offensive end of the floor. So that part’s on me.
“I think sometimes when you win in this league, regardless of where you’re at, you think you’re just going to win. We didn’t have the fight we that needed once we got behind. But their defense was terrific.”
The Pistons never trailed after going ahead 30-27 at the end of the first quarter by — what else? — a 3-pointer by Thon Maker. The Pistons pulled away in the second quarter with an 11-3 run that produced a 43-33 advantage.
The Pistons led by as many as 26 points, at 92-66, in the third quarter. That came during a 36-point frame that saw Ellington drain five 3-pointers and score 17 points. At one point, the shooting guard had more 3s (6) than the Magic (5).
Led by Ellington’s seven 3-pointers, the Pistons were 16-of-31 from long range through three quarters. By then, most of the damage had been done.
“Ellington was terrific. I mean, he made some tough ones,” Clifford said.
You’ll get no argument from Casey.
“Wayne Ellington had a magnificent night,” Casey said. “He was in one of those zones and the only person to stop him was me, to take him out.”
The Magic didn’t recover much from their first-quarter shooting woes, finishing at 39.4 percent (37-for-94) from the field. They did manage to shoot 46.3 percent in the second half but still were outscored 55-52.
The Magic pulled within 99-83 after a 3-pointer by Jonathan Isaac, then had a chance to get closer when Khem Birch earned two free throws after Pistons center Zaza Pachulia was whistled for a flagrant foul.
But Birch missed both foul shots, then Fournier misfired on a 3-point attempt as the Magic retained possession.
The Pistons scored the next seven points to push the lead back into the 20-point range.
“We just didn’t make them work enough [on defense],” Vucevic said. “We didn’t move the ball enough. We didn’t create enough action. When we do that, we’re efficient and everybody scores. Tonight we kind of let their defense affect our offense.”
The Pistons, on the other hand, had no such trouble.
Whether it was pick-and-rolls, dribble hand-offs or catch-and-shoot plays off dribble penetration, the Magic had few answers as the Pistons’ perimeter shooting vexed them all night.
“They were on the attack, and we took none of their strengths away,” Clifford said.
Prior to Thursday, the Magic hadn’t allowed their previous 15 opponents to shoot better than 40 percent from 3-point range. They also entered the game with the seventh-best defensive rating in the league (105.2).
“It was a big game for them, too, so you’ve got to credit their play, but at the same time we’ve got to have a better defensive performance at Indiana,” Gordon said.
If they don’t, the Magic could see their playoff pursuit absorb another blow.