Assistant coach Brendan Malone told Stan Van Gundy the Magic looked “shell-shocked” at halftime, trailing by 10 against a Toronto Raptors team they had easily beaten three times this season. After the Magic dropped their third straight game against a sub-.500 opponent, I think we’re all a little shell-shocked. It’s not that a loss against the Raptors is a monumental cause for concern — they’ve won seven of eight games and it’s always difficult to beat a team four times in a row — but when you couple Wednesday’s poor performance with back-to-back losses to Chicago and Indiana, it raises your eyebrows. The Raptors collectively drilled the Magic, boasting six players in double figures. They shot 54.9 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3-point range. The Raptors’ offense moved briskly and efficiently, finding open shots on what seemed like every possession. They moved without the ball, made the right decisions and took mostly smart shots — three factors that almost always equal offensive success. The Magic’s defense, meanwhile, did little to resist the onslaught. A late run by the Magic (winning the fourth quarter 35-22) made the game respectable, but even a win wouldn’t have changed the tone of conversations between Magic fans — what is wrong with this team? So, as the team faces more turmoil than it has in two years (seriously, this is the worst it’s been in two years? How good have Magic fans had it recently?), we’re left with more questions than answers. Here are some questions, set to the theme of Orlando’s 108-103 to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night.
What is this team’s biggest problem? If you ask me, and I suppose I just did, it’s clear this team isn’t comfortable playing with each other. Whether it’s the return of Jameer Nelson, the addition of Matt Barnes into the starting lineup last week, or the three-man weave between Brandon Bass, Ryan Anderson and Marcin Gortat, there isn’t the same comfort-level that we saw from the Magic last season. It feels like before a tight pass inside or a defensive switch, the players take a split-second to think about where the other player is going to be before making the decision. In tonight’s game, Jameer Nelson passed the ball to Dwight Howard in the post. Howard, sensing danger, threw the ball back to Nelson in the corner — only Nelson had cut to the hoop, and the ball went sailing out of bounds. Howard finished the game with nine turnovers, a lot of which came on attempted passes in traffic. The Magic’s offense is so potent because they’re able to spread the floor — tonight that spacing simply wasn’t there, it seemed. Andrea Bargnani killed it coming off ball screens and watching the confused Magic defenders try to recover against the 7-footer. He had 18 points, 12 of which came away from the basket. These are a couple of examples of the type of miscommunication we saw tonight. A lot of Orlando’s problems are intangible, it seems, which makes writing about it very difficult.
Where was Ryan Anderson tonight? Considering Anderson went 8-for-17 from 3-point range in the first three meetings against Toronto, and the Magic struggled mightily from the 3-point arc tonight, the two seem like a perfect match. But Van Gundy chose to play Bass in the first half, and Rashard Lewis played the entire second half. Why did Bass play instead of Anderson? You’d have to think Van Gundy was afraid of the damage that could be done by Amir Johnson and Chris Bosh, but Dwight Howard guarded Bosh when Bass was in. And Amir Johnson scored 23 points in the team’s first three meetings, all of which Anderson played extensively — is that really a reason to make a switch? The ability to play both a stretch 4 and a power 4 off the bench is a huge luxury — and I’m not sure that luxury was used tonight.
What’s up with Vince Carter? He’s 7-for-37 (18.9 percent) in the last three games for 21 points. That’s the lowest three-game scoring stretch of his entire career! It’s not that he’s playing much differently than normal; his shot simply isn’t falling. There’s clearly some missing mobility from the ankle injury he suffered on Saturday, and maybe it’s best if he takes a game or two off. Seriously, Vince, no one will mind. It’s early January.
Is it time for legitimate concern? Ordinarily, on Jan. 6, I would say no, regardless of the circumstance. But this three-game slide is legitimately disconcerting. Do you realize that the Lakers didn’t lose three games in a row at all last season? The 2007-08 Celtics lost three in a row, but that was on a West Coast road trip against three teams a combined 38 games above .500. The 2006-07 Spurs lost three consecutive games to open the new year, but again, those were three teams a combined 26 games better than average. The point is, championship teams don’t lose three consecutive games to bad teams. Does that mean the Magic aren’t a championship team? Right now, they’re not. But there’s no doubt the Magic have the potential to be a championship team. They’re just not playing like it right now. So, glad we cleared that up.