Orlando Magic answer Frank Vogel’s call, but still need more

The Orlando Magic's D.J. Augustin (14) works against the Portland Trail Blazers' Jusuf Nurkic (27) at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., on Friday, Dec. 15, 2017. The Blazers won, 95-88. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic's D.J. Augustin (14) works against the Portland Trail Blazers' Jusuf Nurkic (27) at Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., on Friday, Dec. 15, 2017. The Blazers won, 95-88. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images) /

Frank Vogel challenged his team after the Orlando Magic’s loss Wednesday. Even then, it still seems as though they need more from their coach.

34. Final. 88. 38. 95

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the LA Clippers, coach Frank Vogel conducted a “spirited” film session with his team. They had already questioned their own effort postgame and the tape did not lie. Without so many players, the Orlando Magic would have to play with the effort and energy to make up for all the losses.

Seemingly effort Friday against the Portland Trail Blazers in a 95-88 loss was not the problem.

In a frantic fourth quarter, Orlando closed the gap to as little as five points. Nikola Vucevic was active on the glass and making his shots as he tried to make his team’s way back into the game. Jonathon Simmons was aggressively and quickly driving the lane and finishing at the rim.

This was the urgent effort the Magic needed. But it was clearly coming a bit too late. The deficit Orlando had built was a bit too great. And the team devolved into a two-man game precisely because it seemed no one else could step up on the floor.

On the floor to end the game next to Jonathon Simmons and Nikola Vucevic were the Magic’s three point guards — Elfrid Payton, D.J. Augustin and Shelvin Mack. The team has used Marreese Speights as the backup power forward with Aaron Gordon leaving the game with a calf injury.

By that point, Orlando had no choice. Those were the horses that had brought them there. And while Vogel felt his team got the message that they needed to fight and scratch and claw to stay in every game now, something was still missing.

"“You need everything that late,” Vogel said. “But you needed it early. We had some droughts early in the game that put us behind 10 or 12 whatever it was and then 17. Then you are fighting uphill. Then you need the fourth quarter to be almost perfect. But listen, I was really proud of our guys’ fight and their heart and energy that they played with.”"

The Magic’s fight was there. And Vogel said his team played well against a full-strength team after struggling against the undermanned Clippers on Wednesday.

The fight is good. And it was necessary for the team to get that back. But clearly, something more is needed. Something is missing with this team. At least with the players they got.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

No one will use injuries as an excuse. And that is the right approach. So if Orlando has enough to win these games, then what more do they have to do? What needs to change?

"“I don’t know what the difference was tonight,” Simmons said. “We just need to focus a little bit better as a whole group and play a little bit harder.”"

Undoubtedly Vogel’s options are limited as he searches for workable lineups and consistency. Simmons said the Magic need to pay a little more attention to detail with the gameplan. And they cannot wait so long to bring the urgency. The effort has to be consistent. Too often during these injuries, it has not.

And the bench lineups Vogel trotted out seemingly put Orlando in a deeper hole.

The lineup to open the second quarter — an all-bench lineup of D.J. Augustin, Shelvin Mack, Wesley Iwundu, Marreese Speights and Bismack Biyombo — gave up six unanswered points to start the second quarter, turning a four-point deficit into a 10-point one. Portland never seemingly let go of that lead or that deficit for the rest of the game.

The group finished giving up 14 points on 15 possessions while scoring nine points. The unit played roughly nine minutes together in this game. The defense might seem fine, in a game that was generally a good defensive game for Orlando, but the poor offense from that unit cost the team.

That -5 point differential proved to be a huge difference in the game. And while in the second quarter that unit was able to get things back under control after a quick timeout, it remained an uphill climb the rest of the game. Orlando never regained the lead.

With the team struggling — and that lineup specifically struggling with a -17.1 net rating in 16 minutes across two games entering Friday’s contest including a woeful 73.9 points per 100 possessions — it makes some sense to ask whether there is not something else the Magic can try.

For now, Vogel is not willing to make the change despite the strong numbers suggesting the team’s offense goes into deep freeze and that it is giving up leads and burying the team in some huge deficits.

"“We’re considering it,” Frank Vogel said of playing two-way prospects Jamel Artis and Adreian Payne. “But I think the other guys have to get the first crack. Ultimately, if you are looking to put guys out there to give you the best chance to win, it’s the guys that we played. They are here for a reason and it’s not to sit on the end of the bench. Those guys are options.”"

That lineup might be an easy scapegoat. To the eye, even before looking at the numbers, it is clearly a lineup that is missing a consistent scoring and driving punch.

There are no easy solutions to fix the roster while it is so hamstrung with injuries. The simplest solution — and probably the one that needs to be done anyway– is to stagger the starters. That might mean some starters are playing a few more minutes and the team is relying more heavily on them, but that is what is necessary to win.

Orlando’s starters — specifically Vucevic and Simmons — are the two best players on the team right now. They seem to be the only two guys capable of forcing action and generating offense for themselves. Defenses have to respect their presence.

But maybe that is not enough. Not with the team as it is currently constructed fighting through injuries. The Magic still need a bit of execution to get over the hump. And that truly never came Friday until the end of the game.

"“We still have good players in this locker room,” Vucevic said. “We still go out there, do your best and try to win. You can’t feel sorry for yourself at any point. Injuries are a part of this game and a part of what we do. Sometimes you’re going to have guys down and sometimes the other team is going to have guys down. It is what it is. You go out there and compete. You can’t use that as an excuse.”"

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Staggering lineups alone is not enough as a solution. Vogel is left with a lot of bad choices.

But it is also clear the choices he is making are ending with the same disastrous results. The Magic are not making any adjustments and they are hurting their chances to win because of this.

The fight is not enough. The Magic received Vogel’s message and he epxressed his satisfaction with the team’s effort. yet, this was s till a game where the Magic never had a chance to win late.

Fans do not have all the information for sure. The coaching staff has practices to supplement games and inform them of their decisions.

Still, sometimes a change is needed. Sometimes things need to be tightened up. Sometimes the rotation needs a shift if anything to see how different combinations work. Maybe that will be the bit that gets the team over the top. And gets them to survive.

Next: Grades: Portland Trail Blazers 95, Orlando Magic 88

Slowly players like Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac will return. That may clarify roles and rotations a bit more. That may add the consistency the Magic need.