It happened again and again.
One instance in a home game against the Raptors on March 30 at Amway Center.
The Magic were down three points and had a chance to tie the game. Make a play to give themselves a chance to win. And they dropped the ball. Not really. Orlando did not even get the chance to drop the ball. The team could not get it in.
Maurice Harkless‘ calls for timeouts fell on deaf ears or were too late. For whatever reason, it was another five-second violation for the Magic in a late-game situation. And a loss at home to the Raptors.
“It’s frustrating,” Tobias Harris said. “I thought Moe signaled a timeout call. I don’t think the referee saw it. I think he was mor elistening to what he was saying. That was what the ref was saying. It’s frustrating for us because they go back and get two free throws.”
“Just good defense by Toronto, denying the basketball in,” Jacque Vaughn said. “We’ll continue to get better at it. Good thing is We’ll continue to be in those situations and we’ll get better at accomplishing it.”
That is simply something that cannot happen for any NBA team, frankly. For Orlando, it happened far too often during the course of the season. It became a running joke throughout the year as the Magic floundered to a 23-win season.
It also became a symbol of the Magic’s failure to accomplish the most simplest task. And it happened in several key moments. There was the Raptors game and the inexcusable loss to the Cavs on January 2, where a five-second call with 13 seconds left and a four-point lead helped the Cavaliers come back. It was one of many plays that night that were just disastrous.
What caused these disasters?
Let’s take a look at these two plays specifically.
First, the inbounds against the Raptors:
The Magic start off with a stack formation and proceed to make this play a disaster. It is just a really poor play design:
The play is designed to get the ball to Arron Afflalo. He is going to follow Victor Oladipo, who will try to set a screen, around a Nikola Vucevic screen. Notice Tobias Harris — a 25.4 percent 3-point shooter last year — is camped above the 3-point line. Harkless simply will have no options as this play progresses. Vaughn is right, this was great defense from the Raptors, but poor play design too.
First, Oladipo creeps toward Harkless to try to free space for Afflalo to run past his man and around Vucevic.
Oladipo has crept down and Harris has moved to set a double screen with Vucevic. Afflalo has already peeled around and has his man chasing him as he tries to get back around for the screen. He is obviously moving away from the ball and has his back turned to Harkless.
At this point a second or two has passed and Harkless has zero options to inbound the ball. Oladipo is focused on the screen and is not an option to inbound. Harris is too far away and covered. And Vucevic is necessary for the screen.
Afflalo has to get open or this play is doomed to failure. Harkless only has that option with how slow things are developing.
Here is where the Raptors played some strong defense. The player defending Harris notices Afflalo’s man is chasing and goes back out to deny Afflalo the ball. Here is where having Afflalo as the only option on this inbound hurts so much. Not only is Afflalo moving away from the ball, making it a difficult inbound, but Harkless has no where else to go.
As the defender jumps out, no one is available to receive the ball.
At this point, the referee has counted to four. By the time Afflalo tries to get to mid-court to give Harkless some type of option, the referee is already motioning for five. Harkless should have called timeout the moment he saw the switch. He has no other quick options.
Again, on an inbounds pass like this, it is critical that you give yourself two, maybe even three options for the inbound. Even with timeouts.
Teams will often use misdirection and multiple actions with the intent of getting the cutter open or if that does not work to get the screener open when the defense goes with the cutter. Multiple options.
The Magic did not do this.
Let’s take a look at the inbounds play against the Cavs (a decidedly less impressive defensive team).
They were late coming out of the timeout, so we do not get the full set up. Here, the Magic do have multiple options though for Harris to try to pass into. Many of them are covered. Jameer Nelson peels off to the corner while Glen Davis tries to set a pick for Arron Afflalo. The defense’s physicality makes Afflalo a little late and Davis pushes way out to set the screen. Afflalo is not able to get around the screen and trips, throwing the entire play off. Harris faked to the backcourt toward Victor Oladipo (I believe), but does not return there. Oladipo is supposed to be the extreme outlet and last option.
Unlike the Raptors play, Harris would have plenty of options to inbound the ball. This was just poor execution rather than a poor play like the Raptors design. With a few more seconds, Harris could get the ball to Oladipo in the backcourt, find Afflalo coming toward him or try an over-the-top play to Davis.
Waiters’ defense on Afflalo throws the whole timing of the play off however. Nelson is completely covered, Davis does not have time to roll out because Afflalo is late coming to the screen and nobody is open. Harris eats it, and a five-second violation is called.
The play ends with Harris trying to float the ball to Afflalo as he regains his footing and tries to get to Harris too late.
In either case, it would be extremely difficult for the Magic to get into a designed play. This late in the game with the lead the Magic had, Orlando was probably just looking to inbound the ball and wait to get fouled.
Again, this version of the inbounds turnover was a better play design, just worse execution. Maybe bringing Oladipo into the play to set a double screen for Afflalo and then have him run off a Davis screen would provide another option. Oladipo is pretty much out of the play, limiting what the Magic can do.
Head coaches have two opportunities to show off their Xs and Os acumen and really impact a game. Inbounds plays and out of timeout plays are specific play designs where coaches can make quick variations to basic set plays.
As much as we are going to be learning about some of the young players on the Magic roster this year, this is also a very big year for Jacque Vaughn. Vaughn will be tested as well as the young players will be expected to step in and take control of the team. Vaughn is going to have to guide them and put them in the best chance for success.
The inbound issues the Magic had at key times last year were befuddling and frustrating. There was poor execution in both of these instances, but also poor play design that falls on the coach. The conspiracy theorists probably have an explanation for that. But it is no longer an excuse.
These little things cannot be overlooked anymore. The inbounding became a microcosm for the struggles Vaughn had as a coach last year. It was fine for last year, considering the transition the Magic were still in.
Everyone expects Orlando to begin inching forward now after two trips to the league’s dregs. That means eliminating these mistakes in key moments. That falls on the coaching from Vaughn.
Another storyline to watch.