OKLAHOMA CITY — The way the Orlando Magic offense performed Christmas night, you would have thought the team has an entirely new cast, not just a couple of additions here and there.
Two frustrating scoring draughts — each lasting about a quarter, each confounding — cost the Magic in their season opener, a 97-89 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And, now, players say they still need some more time to jell after the lockout-induced layoff and an abbreviated preseason.
“It’s going to take a while because we’ve been off for a long time,” Howard said.
“For people who really don’t understand the game, it takes a while to get back into the swing of playing. No matter what you’ve done all summer, it’s just a different feeling when you’re out there playing against other people.”
The Magic took a 18-11 lead with 7:44 remaining in the first quarter and then suddenly went cold. They missed 25 of their next 30 shot attempts, and they found themselves trailing 48-31 with 5:02 remaining in the second quarter.
Their struggles worsened.
After the Magic showed some fight and cut the Thunder lead to 64-54 with 7:53 left to play in the third, Orlando did not make another field goal until 7:57 remained in regulation.
“I thought we played pretty well defensively in the second half, but offensively we just weren’t good all night,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “The first five minutes we were pretty good, and other than that, we just weren’t good. We weren’t sharp. We didn’t execute.”
Van Gundy did not like the pace of the offense. He did not like how players often settled for a shot after just one pass. He did not like his players’ screens, or lack thereof.
After their disappointing first-round playoff exit last April, the Magic made just two significant changes to their rotation. The team waived point guard Gilbert Arenas, and the team acquired power forward Glen Davis in a sign-and-trade for another power forward, Brandon Bass.
Sunday night, the guys who returned looked out of sync.
One sequence exemplified the Magic’s futility.
Earl Clark collected an offensive rebound underneath the hoop. He went up for a dunk, but newly svelte Kendrick Perkins blocked the ball from behind.
Live by the 3, die by the 3 — that’s a hallmark of Orlando’s attack, and the Magic paid for it Sunday, connecting on just eight of their 28 attempts from beyond the arc.
Power forward Ryan Anderson scored a team-high 25 points for Orlando.
Howard added 11 points and 15 rebounds as he was guarded most of the night by Perkins.
Perhaps no center in the league has given Howard more problems through the years than Perkins, who was traded from the Boston Celtics to the Thunder last season.
Perkins and the rest of the Thunder delivered.
“It is a very good present,” Scott Brooks, their coach, said.
“I am very pleased with our intensity. I knew that we were going to be in for a very difficult game because of how they play. They spread the floor so well, and Howard is the premier player in the league. I thought Perk was really good and made him work for everything he had, and that is what we expect out of Perk every night.”
Howard seemed engaged all night, despite his request to be traded.
And at least he and his teammates showed some grit.
Coming out of a timeout with 4:53 left in the game, Howard tapped Jameer Nelson softly on the back and appeared to offer some positive words. Howard then did the same with Anderson.
Orlando trailed 87-72 at the time, but with a spark from swingman Von Wafer off the bench, the team eventually closed the gap to 95-87 with 1:20 to go after a trey by Anderson.
By then, it was too late.
The sellout crowd at Chesapeake Energy Arena saw two-time defending scoring champion Kevin Durant pour in a game-high 30 points and James Harden come off the Thunder bench to add 19.
They also saw everybody on the Magic roster except Anderson and Nelson struggle offensively.
“We had some great looks,” said Magic shooting guard Jason Richardson, who went 1 for 10 from the field and finished with two points. “We started the game great, moving the ball. I think we started missing shots and we started getting a little bit stagnant.
“It’s only the first game. We’ve got a lot of games in a short amount of time.”
The stretches of Orlando’s horrid shooting should not come as much of a surprise — at least not after the team’s preseason.
The hope was that those stretches would not recur.
Well, they did recur.
For one quarter apiece.
When a game actually counted in the standings.
On Monday night, the Magic will play their home opener against the Houston Rockets, a team that did not play on Christmas.
“This one was tough for us on both ends,” Howard said. “But we’ll get better. Hopefully, tomorrow is a better game.”
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