One thing the Magic have certainly gotten used to the past year and a half is being a bit behind on the scoreboard. That is the nice way of putting things.
The team is most definitely going through a rebuild (if you have not heard) with an emphasis on youth and building things through the Draft. That takes a commensurate amount of patience and takes a ton of heartache. The Magic have experienced plenty of that.
What has been even more noticeable in recent games is the Magic having to constantly play from a deficit and play catch up the entire game.
That is a tough place for a young team to be. Sure, the Magic typically have the energy and the drive to make things a game, but ultimately their depth and inconsistent talent leave them with another loss. Playing from behind is not an easy thing to do and has been a consistent theme throughout the 2014 season.
“I just think we’re not happy with our record,” Nikola Vucevic said earlier this year (but the sentiment could easily carry over three months later). “We’re not doing stuff consistently. We’ve shown when we can do it, we’re a pretty good team. We have some good wins. When we play the right way, we defend, we play hard the whole game, we start right, when we start the game right then it’s a lot easier to play because we’re right there. When you get down by 20, it’s hard to come back.”
That tinge of disappointment has not left the team. Sure, the Magic have matched last season’s win total with 10 games left in the season, but that has hardly registered with this roster. They wanted a bit more from this season. There is definitely a sense that they have left games out there.
And having to make these extreme comebacks is not helping matters.
In regulation, no quarter is worse for the Magic than the first quarter. They have a net efficiency rating of -10.5 points per 100 possessions, scoring 96.3 points per 100 possessions in the opening quarter. The Magic start each game in a hole it would seem and that means they are spending the rest of the game trying to climb out.
“We have to always be in attack mode as a team,” Jacque Vaughn said. “That starts at the beginning of the game. That has to be our motive. Not playing uphill. We have to have a complex intensity level at the beginning of the game and it has to last throughout.”
One of Vaughn’s favorite lines for his young team is keeping a level head and learning how not to get too high or too low. Falling behind is an easy way to practice that as the realities of a long NBA game set in. It is often said about the season in general that players have to learn not to get too high or too low after wins and losses.The ability to do this is critical in moving forward and competing the next game as well as the next quarter.
There have been plenty of examples this season — ranging from a 19-2 run to open a game against the Bobcats in January which the Magic had to erase to last weekend’s game against the Lakers or Jazz that saw the Magic fall behind and had to fight their way back. Orlando has had crushing losses — the loss to Utah felt that way — and has moved on with varying success. Tuesday’s win over Portland was an example of the team moving forward and fighting through their struggles.
The problem remains that Orlando is often playing itself out of a hole and have played more from behind than ahead in recent games. In fact, the Magic have not won a first quarter since a loss to the Nuggets on March 12. Orlando is often playing from behind.
This is a problem because it only makes a tight margin for error even tighter. Orlando is not the most talented team — we all know that — and the team’s defense and offense still need a lot of work. Those moments when it plays well are the hope for the team’s future.
Before Glen Davis was released, he talked a lot about the team having to focus on its defensive intensity and energy to help stem the tide when shots were not falling. That is a difficult thing for a young team to learn. But consistent winning comes from that idea.
“I think overall, that’s why we kind of try to teach consistency,” Vaughn said. “That when you’re on the floor you’re not trying to conserve your energy, you’re putting forth maximum effort on your time on the floor. Does it help overall the starters when the second unit comes ina nd gives you extra minutes of rest and extends your lead, yeah. But consistently, you’re not worried about that. You do your job the same way every day, you don’t have to worry about if you’re playing five minutes or 35 minutes.”
The Magic’s rotating staritng lineup has not helped the Magic get out on the right foot. The current starting lineup, with Jameer Nelson returning tonight, of Nelson-Arron Afflalo-Maurice Harkless-Kyle O’Quinn-Nikola Vucevic has a net efficiency of -13.9 points per 100 possessions. That is not a great way to get off to start in games as Vaughn continues to experiment with his lineup. That lineup is +0.2 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter, however.
When talking about the slim margin for error, however, it makes things difficult. Fouls become a greater tool to maintain a lead and mistakes become amplified. Teams with a lead can use a trailing team’s aggressiveness and desperation against them.
The margin for error becomes tighter.
“If the other team makes a run and you get discouraged, that’s in their favor,” Tobias Harris said. “That’s what they want. For us, it would just be continuing to go right back at them. Take their punch and give them a punch also. That’s how I look at it. You see the top teams in teh NBA, when other teams make runs, that’s what they do, they settle down and get right back on their feet.”
Playing from behind a lot means you are going to have a lot of losses. That part has been frustrating for the Magic, especially since the team fights so hard to get back into the game time and time again. They are very rarely blown out.
“It had got to the point where losses can be discouraging,” Arron Afflalo said. “But I don’t know if you guys felt it, it always feels like we’re right there and then something happens and we end up losing.
“Our margin for error is so small. Any time we made a break down or a team made a run against us, it’s like the game got out of hand. With that in mind, it’s not like we were just getting beat handily. We were always in games. It’s about making those minor adjustments mentally, paying a little more attention to detail, sharing the ball a little bit more and coming out with victories.”
This is part of the growing process, this playing from behind and learning how to fight and play hard. Tuesday’s game was encouraging in that the Magic fell behind and then came back and took complete control of the game. The Blazers never challenged them.
There is growth in this area and the Magic have shown their stripes in being able to fight hard time and time again. One day, the Magic can begin to learn to play with a lead, for now, they are working to avoid falling behind.