In a season bereft of much motivation to win except pride and youth development, this is the game and this is the moment the Magic likely want their young players to see and feel.
It was not so long ago that Kevin Durant was going through these growing pains — and Orlando certainly does not have a Kevin Durant on the roster right now — and suffering losses to teams that were already title contenders while his team was making the long climb up.
The Magic are making the long climb up and got another positive sign that the future is bright with the way Maurice Harkless took over the game.
Even with Harkless spinning his way around Kevin Durant and dicing the Thunder defense for long stretches of the game, there is still a lot to learn. Orlando and Oklahoma City were tied at 86 when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook took over the game offensively and closed the game on an 11-3 run to end the game.
Serge Ibaka started blocking shots and repealing the Magic from the rim. There was, of course, no chance the Magic were going to get to the foul line — and Harkless and Harris are still learning how to draw fouls against a skilled shot blocker like Ibaka.
Execution mattered and the Thunder, the more experienced and more talented side, won out in the end with a 97-89 win at Amway Center on Friday. Durant scored 25 points and Russell Westbrook scored 19 points. Serge Ibaka had 13 rebounds and five blocks and made himself known defensively, particularly at the end of the game.
This game though largely belonged to rookie Maurice Harkless.
After shootaround, Durant said Harkless defended him like a veteran would during last week's game at Oklahoma City. He admitted he did not realize the rookie was 19 years old.
Harkless proved that it was not a flash in the pan at all. Harkless on several occasions went right after Durant on offense, taking him off the dribble and going to the basket. He was hitting 3-pointers and aggressively attacking the rim. He got the ball at one point on the open floor and spun past Kevin Martin for a lay in. He dunked on Nick Collison on another.
This Maurice Harkless has largely not been seen. Harkless stepped into the role left vacant when Arron Afflalo injured his right hamstring in the second quarter and dominated the game. Harkless scored a career-high 25 points, making 11 of his 18 shots. He had the ball in his hands more than he probably ever has in his short NBA career. And he was aggressive with it too.
It was great to see.
More than that, he took ownership defensively. In one sequence in the fourth quarter, Harkless got to the basket and had his shot blocked by Ibaka. The Thunder pushed the ball to the other end with the speedy Russell Westbrook got the basket. Harkless was right behind and he knocked it out of his hands.
That is a great play from a young player. He did not let offensive shortcomings prevent him from staying in the play. It is a positive sign.
There were still those signs that he, and his team, are young and not ready to win. And they came down the stretch.
Harkless attacked the basket looking for a foul on several occassions, but did not have himself in position to take the contact. He exposed too much of the ball and did not get his body between himself and the shot blocker, Ibaka. It was easy not to give that call.
Whereas on the other side, Oklahoma City did get the benefit of the doubt. Kevin Durant got free across a screen and was grazed by Jameer Nelson. The foul gave Oklahoma City a four-point lead the team would not surrender.
When the Magic tried getting into the paint the next possession, Tobias Harris went to the paint and drew some contact, but not enough to get the call. Oklahoma City made a play to keep expanding the lead. It capped off a difficult night for Harris (10 points, 15 rebounds on 3-for-17 shooting).
The Thunder, again, were the team ready to finish. The Magic were not quite there.
The will is certainly there though. The Magic continued to fight to the final whistle. They fell behind by 17 points in the first half and fought back. Orlando started the second half on a 10-0 run to cut a 13-point halftime deficit to three. Jameer Nelson had eight of his 16 points in that run. He also had 10 assists, working harmoniously with Beno Udrih in the lineup alongside him for most of the game. Udrih had 13 points and five assists.
The reality for the Magic though is that they are still a young team learning how to win. And putting teams away — particularly the good teams that are supremely confident in their skills, their teammates and their gameplan — is the most difficult lesson to learn.
This year is not necessarily about that lesson. It will come in time.
And if Harkless' big game is any indication, that time will be coming.