The Orlando Magic have been on the hunt for one thing since the beginning of the season. In March, they are still looking for identity. And it hurts.
If there is one thing you can say about Elfrid Payton is that he does not lack confidence.
Payton is a 41.6 percent shooter and made only 4 of 25 3-pointers this season entering Friday’s game. He has been intentionally fouled as a point guard because of his 55.2 percent free throw shooting.
Yet, here he is going right into the paint again. Challenging much bigger defenders, drawing contact and going back to the free throw line. Here he is lining himself up and hoisting from 3.
Sometimes the confidence gets rewarded as Payton made two 3-pointers, increasing his 3-point production by 50 percent. Sometimes it does not, as Payton made only 4 of 15 free throws, preventing the Magic from extending their control over the game.
Still Payton kept attacking. He has that rare breed of confidence bordering somewhat on delusion. The kind of short memory every professional player needs to forget the last play and do your job the next.
If only every Magic player had this kind of statistically irrational confidence when everything seems bleak.
He trusts his skills and will go back to that well because his team needs him to.
That explains why Payton, he of the inefficient jumper and poor free throw shooting, was the most consistent offensive option for the Magic all night Friday — he scored 20 points and dished out nine assists, getting anywhere he wanted on the floor and looking aggressively for his own shot in addition to setting other sup. It is why even late in the game, he attacked the basket even under Phil Pressey‘s intense pressure.
If the Magic had a whole bunch of players with Elfrid Payton’s mentality, we may not be talking about another blown lead late in the fourth quarter. We may not even be talking about it as a general issue with this team.
Yet, here we are again. Asking the same questions as we did Wednesday night. . . and after the loss to the Heat . . . and after the loss to the Bulls . . . and after the loss to the Wizards . . . and the Warriors . . . and countless others. We have had our false starts and out moments where we believed the team was turning the corner. As recently as last week against the Kings, it looked like the Magic had made that leap and had successfully finished out a game.
Those lessons did not carry through.
How do we account for this continued problem? Surely the Magic should have learned by now through experience how to handle these late-game situations.
Orlando continues to get decent opportunities to score and miss shots. Those are the things you can deal with and live with. It is the turnovers and lack of cohesion on offense. It is the lapses on defense that lead to leads evaporating that continue to confound at the end of the day.
Orlando had four turnovers in the fourth quarter. But more interestingly, the Magic, who shot 7 for 21 in the fourth quarter Friday night, took just six shots at the rim in the fourth quarter.
This after scoring 42 points in the paint for the game and 36 points in the paint entering the final quarter.
The Magic’s shot chart is not pretty. And the Magic are not a strong offensive team to begin with. But it is still hard to tell how they want to play.
It felt like Jacque Vaughn initially wanted the team to run some of the swing motion sets the Spurs ran. But it devolved into isolation plays, which the Magic do not have the players to run. Lots of pick and rolls ended up being involved and the Magic do not have the shooters to space the floor.
At some point in the season, Orlando decided to pick up the pace to an incredible rate. It worked for a while. Then the team reverted back to slowing it down. James Borrego has the team playing at a more controlled pace to focus on protecting the paint and defending.
The Magic’s lack of identity leaked to the defensive end too.
At one point they were blitzing with their guards allowing Nikola Vucevic to shade back, hiding his lack of foot speed and lateral quickness. Then they have Vucevic hedge, exposing that weakness.
Now Borrego has the team sinking into the paint, conceding 3-pointers and jumpers to prevent easy baskets. Give the defense credit for this one thing, only one of Evan Turner‘s six field goals in the fourth quarter Friday came in the paint. He has helped forge the team’s defensive identity.
But Orlando is still struggling to figure out what it wants to do on offense. It does not have the backstop of an identity or philosophy to fall back on when things start to head south. There is no telling how huge that is.
It could be a star player that the team can hand the ball to and expect to finish or command the defense’s attention at all times. It can be a defense that is going to give them a chance at the end of any game if they stick to defensive principles (the Magic are getting there more under Borrego, but are still far from having that sort of identity). It can be a belief and trust in a system and knowing that running that system will get a good shot and rebuild confidence and momentum.
It is hard to say the Magic have any of that at this point. Aside from youth — an excuse the team specifically said it would avoid at the beginning of the season — this lack of trust in a system and this lack of an identity is the biggest problem the Magic set out to solve this season. And now with about a month left in the season, the Magic are still searching for this important piece to the puzzle.
Despite his best efforts, this does not seem to be coming from James Borrego in his short tenure as interim coach. This is something that has to come in the offseason as the Magic try to rebuild.
The continued disasters at the end of games is only the example of a bigger problem with this team. One they either figure out on their own or one that will come with the installation of a new coach this summer.
The Magic are still searching for that thing they were looking for in October and November. And that says everything that needs to be said about this season.