But the Magic’s offense unraveled when it was needed most: the fourth quarter.
Shots suddenly went off-target. Players repeatedly gave up the basketball. Ball movement lagged.
Most of all, the Knicks bore down and handed the Magic their fifth consecutive loss, a 99-89 defeat in front of an announced sellout crowd at Amway Center.
“I just think we have to want to win more, simple as that,” said Magic swingman Arron Afflalo, who had a team-high seven turnovers. “We’re going to do it together. It’s not one man on this team that’s going to do it. We pretty much just have to want it more. It’s not about offensive schemes anymore or defensive execution.”
In the final period, the Knicks held the Magic to 5-of-16 shooting and forced seven turnovers as the Magic continued to miss the experience and ball-handling abilities of injured point guard Jameer Nelson and small forward Hedo Turkoglu.
“We’ve got to finish games,” said Orlando co-captain Glen Davis. “We can’t use being young as an excuse. We’ve got to learn. We’ve got to get it down, or we’re going to look up and we’re going to be 2-10. I’m not used to that. I’ve never played on a 2-10 team in my entire life.”
So far, however, the Magic are only 2-5.
It didn’t have to be that way.
The Knicks needed a big performance by All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony, who scored a game-high 25 points and made 11 of his 22 shot attempts.
“We buckled down on our defense and slowed them down,” said Anthony, whose team improved to 5-0.
The Magic asked one player after another to guard Anthony one-on-one.
Harkless, a Queens native and lifelong Knicks fan, finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in 19 minutes.
It easily was the best performance of his brief Magic tenure.
“I think I played pretty good, but unfortunately, we lost, so it doesn’t really matter,” Harkless said. “It’s all about the team. I wish I would’ve played more in the end. I think I was doing a pretty good job on Carmelo, but I don’t know. They just played harder than we did at the end.”
In his three previous games, he looked tentative on offense and indecisive on defense.
That was to be expected.
He is only 19 years old and has just one season of college experience. After he played summer league basketball for the Philadelphia 76ers — before the Sixers traded him to the Magic in the Dwight Howard deal — he underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia.
On Tuesday, he played aggressively.
Midway through the second quarter, he cut sharply through the lane, received a pass from E’Twaun Moore and finished with a nice layup at the hoop to tie the score 35-35. Later in the period, he threw down an emphatic dunk to tie the game 47-47.
Harkless blocked a layup attempt by Anthony with 14.9 seconds left in the third and then blocked another try by Anthony just a couple of seconds later.
“I loved his pace tonight,” Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said of Harkless. “[I liked him] running the floor, of wanting to be out on the court and be involved in an NBA game and compete and rebound and defend and aggressively attack the basket.
“So there were some victories tonight, for sure, on our end in my eyes.”
In the end, though, it will go down as Orlando’s fifth straight loss.
The Magic went ahead 80-79 with 10:35 to go on a pair of free-throws by Andrew Nicholson, but the Knicks took the lead for good on a 3-pointer by Jason Kidd a short while later.
The struggles down the stretch, coupled with New York’s defense, doomed Orlando.
The Magic had made 54 percent of their shots through the first three quarters but made just 31 percent during the final period.
“The same thing we did to get that lead — we’ve got to keep doing those same things,” Davis said. “We can’t stop it, no matter what, unless they make us stop it. Then, we go to the coach and say, ‘Hey, Coach, what’s our adjustment?’
“We’ve got to keep doing the same things. They hit some tough at the end, but at the same time, I’m not using ‘young’ as an excuse or we’re not experienced enough. We’re a good team. We’re in ballgames against good teams. We can play this game.”firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/magicblog and follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaBRobbins.