After a blowout home loss to a weary and short-handed Utah Jazz team, expectations for the Orlando Magic need to be recalibrated.
The start to the season was fun while it lasted.
The hot shooting was never going to sustain long-term at the league-leading levels it reached, but there were some expectations the Orlando Magic would be an interesting playoff team if the offense was even half that good and the defense was just competent.
For a few weeks, the Magic were the darlings of the NBA. After five years without ever sniffing the Playoffs, fans could begin to believe.
After a blowout 125-85 home loss to the Utah Jazz on Saturday night, those expectations need to be recalibrated.
Through 15 games the Magic showed plenty of signs that made them look like a Playoff team. In game 16, Orlando did something no Playoff team can afford.
This loss was inexcusable given so many factors relevant to Saturday’s game favored the Magic:
- Jazz were on the second game of a back-to-back (playing in Brooklyn on Friday night) while the Magic last played on Wednesday — even taking an extra night in Portland to get extra sleep.
- All-NBA center Rudy Gobert and veteran swingman Joe Johnson were both out for the Jazz. And Ricky Rubio was on a minutes restriction for his sore Achilles
- Coming into the game, the Jazz had lost 7 of their last 8
- Magic had a sense of urgency knowing they are in a tough part of the schedule. Nikola Vucevic before the game said, “It’s critical that we get these next two games at home…we need to stay above .500 before we go on this next trip.”
- Jazz were 0-6 on the road coming into this game, Magic were 4-2 at home
If you could design a game for the Magic to stop the bleeding after their four-game road trip out West, it would look a lot like this one. Yet the Magic lost. And by a franchise-record 40, no less. The Magic no-showed the game.
There are two components to be discussed with this loss: The mathematics of the standings when losing a game with such a favorable setup and what the nature of the loss reveals about the team.
The first component is easy to understand.
If the Magic are to have playoff aspirations this year, they must win whenever it is a “schedule loss” for the opponent (like this game). It does not matter how the win happens, just that it does happen.
Barring extraordinary luck, only a few of these chances present themselves each season. This team does not have a large margin of error if they want to grab the seventh or eighth seed in the East, simply because the Magic are not noticeably better than the teams they will be battling for those spots (Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks, etc.).
In the standings, a win now counts just as much as a win in April. If the Magic end up hanging around the playoff race, this loss could mathematically come back to bite them.
In fact, Saturday’s loss officially knocked the Magic out of the pole position. They fell to ninth in the East in falling to 8-8.
It is still early in the season. The standings are not quite settled. But the second component to this loss is the more distressing part.
Mathematically, the loss is just one game. But how the team lost this game revealed a lot that could persist through the rest of the season.
Shots did not fall for the Magic on Saturday as the team bricked its way to 38.8 percent from the field (including 27.6 percent from deep).
Every team has those nights when shots do not fall. The bad shooting is not concerning in and of itself. As long as it is not a true reflection of the team’s level of shooting.
But the team’s frustrations on offense seemed to affect their effort level on the defensive end of the floor. It is understandable that morale will dip some when scoring is so hard to come by. But the extent to which that happened was alarming.
Elfrid Payton was repeatedly caught out of position when defending off-ball, leading to open jumpers or out-of-control closeouts. Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo sat back in the paint on pick and rolls time after time even when the Jazz guards kept walking right into open jumpers and making them. Of course, sitting back on pick-and-roll coverage would not have been such an issue if Magic guards were not constantly getting screened cleanly (but they were).
As a result, many bad things happened.
Derrick Favors had a field day on the glass (11 boards in 25 minutes) because Magic bigs kept having to rotate over to cover for guards, not staying in front of their man. Rodney Hood led all scorers nearly matching his career high with 31 points, making 7 of 13 from beyond the arc. Raul Neto somehow put up a +44 plus-minus rating in just 24 minutes of action.
This game was U-G-L-Y. And the Magic had no alibi. There is no alibi for such an ugly loss. Especially not from a team with Playoff aspirations.
The good news is the Magic will not always shoot this poorly. Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier missed plenty of good looks they can normally be counted on to make. Elfrid Payton will get to the rim more often as his hamstring keeps healing up.
But if the Magic consistently allow their defensive intensity to correlate with their offensive production, they will be limited in how good they can be this season. In the marathon that is the NBA season, there will be many nights in which offense is not easy. It happens to even the best teams, and it’s a hard factor to control.
In particular, fringe playoff teams cannot afford to just throw away all of the games in which their shooting is off. Teams like the Magic need to be able to scrap for ugly wins on nights when the basket is unforgiving. If they do not do that, the Playoffs will likely be no more than a long shot.
Many around the league were excited about the Magic’s deadly shooting to begin the season. But it is obvious now the hot streak was overhyped. Admittedly, it was fun to look up the stats after eight games and see the Magic at the top of many statistical categories.
But if the Magic had instead started off the season shooting poorly and then went on a similar hot streak later, the streak would not have been hyped as the “leap” that some were hailing it as. It is just that at the start of the season, there are no other reference points from that season, and so the streak appears to be indicative of a new order.
We know better now. This annihilation at the hands of the Jazz tells us that qualifying for the playoffs will likely be an uphill battle, whether in the mathematical sense or the skill sense.
It is only going to get tougher from here.