Orlando Magic reflect on what went wrong

Feb 3, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) drives to the basket in front of Orlando Magic forward Channing Frye (8) during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 3, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) drives to the basket in front of Orlando Magic forward Channing Frye (8) during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports /

There is beginning to be some sense of evaluation and understanding of what the Orlando Magic’s 2016 season. As the team streaks to the end, there is regret

The Orlando Magic know they have a week left in their season. The finish line is in sight as the team looks forward to an important offseason and closing out the season with something feeling like momentum.

Momentum may not carry through to the 2017 season, but there is a continued sense the team can head into the offseason with their heads up, now having won four of their past five games.

That success — as meaningful as it can be — has caused some pangs of regret too. As the end of the season comes up, there is some reflection on the season that is nearing its completion.

Particularly in light of the Magic’s suddenly strong play, there is a tinge of frustration and regret that the team could not turn this corner while it still mattered.

“We all wish we had played like this earlier,” Nikola Vucevic said after Sunday’s win over the Memphis Grizzlies. “We had this aggressive mentality earlier. Especially in January and February we couldn’t get everything together. Obviously we’re out of it, but we want to build good momentum for next year. It can really help transfer into next year. We want to leave here on a positive note. We’re disappointed we didn’t make the playoffs, but we can make progress. We leave on a positive note and it gives you more motivation for the summer to work harder and come back better for next year.”

That little taste of competing for a Playoff spot and having the expectation of making the Playoffs certainly holds some sway over this team. There is disappointment and frustration, perhaps even a realization of the opportunity that was lost in January and February as the team fell out of the standings.

It is easy to point to the close losses as a sign of the Magic’s struggles. But really those games were a series of miscues and slippage that resulted in the Magic tumbling.

The defense noticeably and alarmingly began slipping in mid-December, even while the Magic were winning, and it was clear the offense would not stay at its world-beating pace. The number show that right now the Magic are posting a similar pattern to that December success — a strong offense near the top of the league and a defense that is at least good enough.

In December, the Magic posted a 104.9 offensive rating and 101.5 defensive rating — a +3.4 net rating. In the past five games (granted a small sample size), the Magic have a 117.5 offensive rating and a 101.3 defensive rating.

Something similar to December, while the defense was not the strongest then and is decent for now in this stretch, would have been enough to get the team into the Playoffs.

Even coach Scott Skiles has said his team is playing like a Playoff team right now and simply going .500 in January and February would have made the games they are playing now meaningful.

“There was so much slippage in the month of January and we never stopped the momentum,” Aaron Gordon said. “It came back and it was detrimental in the end for us. It is frustrating, but it is something this team needs to go through to experience what it is like to miss the Playoffs when you feel like you should be in it.”

Putting their finger on what exactly went wrong brings in the familiar tropes written on these pages and discussed by fans.

There were he close games. The failure to respond after tough losses or answer runs. The inconsistent play — not knowing what kind of effort or team would come out each night. Going away from things that were successful — perhaps taking the success for granted as young teams may sometimes do. Going away from the strong defense that became the team’s hallmark earlier in the season. There was the lack of pace too as the team seemed to slow down and not get out in transition. And the injuries — to Elfrid Payton, to C.J. Watson, to Nikola Vucevic.

And on and on and on.

There were a lot of reasons for the team’s struggles. The question now is what will the team do with the time they have remaining?

That has been shown with how the team has realized some of that potential again in the last five games. That 19-13 team was always in there. The team just could not unlock it.

At least this play is some solace of that.

“We go out there and compete every day and compete to win,” Oladipo said. “Yes, it is a level of success. We might not be where we want to be, but at the end of the day, everything happens for a reason. We just have to keep believing in ourselves and keep getting better and striving for greatness.”

That might still be the greatest realization to make about this group. The team may not want to use it as an excuse but it is still incredibly young. They are prone to the ups and downs and inconsistencies of youth as they figure out who they are and what they can do in the NBA. There will be undoubted growth through the offseason as individuals improve their individual games.

Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic
Mar 18, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo (5) celebrates after he made a basket against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Players are getting better. Elfrid Payton has snapped back into strong play, bringing the team up with him. The team has picked up its pace. Victor Oladipo re-emerged as a player with All-Star potential. Nikola Vucevic is draining jumpers with ease and stretching defenses.

All the pieces seem to be there without the consistency.

The season is full of regret. And full of lessons too. The fact a game in January is as important as a game in April is a lesson the team had to learn. To play with the same defensive intensity and focus throughout a game is another. The team had never played with this pressure before.

The Magic might be seeing some improvement individually and might be finishing things strong. But the fact the games end one week from Wednesday — April 13 — certainly is the biggest sting of all.

The opportunity slipped through their fingers.

Next: Orlando Magic's inconsistent offense swinging up again

“Play better in January so we’re not having to take an early exit,” Gordon said. “That’s the lesson that we learned. Nobody wants to be in the situation that we’re in now. But we’re in it, all you can do is improve.”