The Orlando Magic have not always been able to rely on themselves to compete every night. Now the team is, and the disappointment of losing remains.
Once again, coach Frank Vogel was feeling a measure of disappointment. That disappointing feeling is not entirely new for this Orlando Magic team. There has been disappointment after disappointment with this team since that strong 8-4 start dissipated.
This is something much more basic. Vogel, ever the optimist, is always trying to find something good to hold onto. And after such a hard fall, he will take the victories where he can get him.
No, this disappointment is something new. Something he might have wished he could say earlier when there was still something the Magic could do about their season.
Once again, Vogel met the media after another loss to express disappointment. Disappointment his team’s effort was not rewarded with a better result.
It is the most basic thing. But the Magic have not always played with a winning effort — or competitive spirit, in Vogel’s parlance — and getting that consistent effort is at least a small step in the right direction.
Again Tuesday, the Magic put themselves in a golden position to win against one of the best teams in the entire league. It took James Harden putting in a record performance to put the Magic away.
The Houston Rockets never could get away. The Magic scrambled to defend the 3-point line, keeping the Rockets to 37.1 percent from beyond the arc. Outside of Harden, the Rockets found their offense hard to generate. They found it hard to get completely away.
Orlando’s defense was hardly great — Harden did score 60, after all, and Houston posted a 122.2 offensive rating — but the team did plenty to keep itself in the game. The Magic had an answer on offense, making timely 3-pointers and moving the ball.
This is not a team playing as the worst team in the league. This is a team that is giving itself every chance to win.
The Magic have not lost a game by more than 10 points in the last eight outings. That includes two wins. And it feels like the Magic should have more than those two wins. There were definitely plenty of games they let go in those moments — a lifeless effort against the Sacramento Kings and a lost 20-point lead to the Indiana Pacers the most obvious.
The last eight games, the Magic are posting a -1.8 net rating, good for 19th in the league. The team’s 109.2 offensive rating in that stretch is ninth in the league over the last eight games. The team’s 111.0 defensive rating remains a problem. But this is not the profile of a league-worst team.
This is instead the profile of a team that is more in line with what everyone thought the Magic could be. A roughly .500 team able to compete with any team in the league.
The game was tied at 107 as the game entered the final three minutes. Thanks to a Marreese Speights four-point play, Orlando was playing late in the game against a vaunted, if still undermanned Houston team.
The game came down to what games should come down to — late game execution. There the Magic are still sorely lacking. Jonathon Simmons turned the ball over on one possession. Mario Hezonja took an ill-advised shot on another. The Magic did not make the plays they needed down the stretch.
All the while, Harden continued his takeover. When he made a four-point play against an overeager defense from Mario Hezonja, the game was over. The Rockets were the better team, making the plays down the stretch needed to win.
The Magic are not 14-35 for any reason. Those losses have come from an inability to win late — 7-17 in close games per NBA.com. But just as often, those losses have come from a pure lack of effort, or at least high-level effort. The team has not brought it every single night.
On a base level, the Magic are competing and giving themselves a chance to win every night again. The Magic have not always been able to say that this year.
It is something incredibly basic. It is something that every team should expect. The fact the Magic have not been able to expect this every single night is a major clue to the team’s poor record.
They are expecting it now. They are seeing it now.
At some point, the Magic will pick up some wins because of it.
For now, the disappointment remains.