Orlando Magic’s winning ugly is about being the same every game

Utah Jazz´ Donovan Mitchell (L) vies for the ball with Orlando Magic's Evan Fournier during their NBA Global Games match at the Mexico City Arena, on December 15, 2018, in Mexico City. (Photo by PEDRO PARDO / AFP) (Photo credit should read PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)
Utah Jazz´ Donovan Mitchell (L) vies for the ball with Orlando Magic's Evan Fournier during their NBA Global Games match at the Mexico City Arena, on December 15, 2018, in Mexico City. (Photo by PEDRO PARDO / AFP) (Photo credit should read PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic won two ugly games to snap their three-game losing streak. The art of winning while the offense struggles is a big sign of growth.

The atmosphere inside the Arena Ciudad de Mexico resembled the passion and energy that can be found at soccer games at nearby Azteca Stadium. There were loud chants and whistles. Not always for the designated home team.

The crowd was engaged in the game just like the way it is engaged during FIBA tournaments and Eurobasket teams. This special treat of the NBA on their home soil was not something to be missed.

It reminded Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier of the games he grew up watching and playing in Euroleague and Eurobasket. Those passionate crowds.

Also the basketball. Gritty, ugly, grind-it-out games that came down to a few possessions and were not always pretty.

"“What you guys call an ugly game, for us, is like a Euroleague game,” Evan Fournier said. “That’s what it was with Utah. It was a Euroleague game. There is not an art. It’s a matter of who is going to make fewer mistakes and who is going to execute down the stretch. Both teams are not going to do anything crazy. So it’s a matter of who is going to execute better.”"

Yes, Mexico City got the treat of two NBA regular season games on Mexican soil. But it was not exactly the best example of that kind of play.

The Orlando Magic defeated the Chicago Bulls on Thursday 97-91 in a game that saw the Magic shoot 41.5 percent from the floor and forced 18 turnovers (while committing 16 of their own). Saturday, Orlando did not fare much better offensively. The Utah Jazz lost 96-89, after giving up just 55 points through three quarters. Orlando’s 41-point outburst in the fourth quarter saved the game for the team.

But in both games, it came down to late-game execution. And in both games, the Magic stepped up.

Against Chicago, Nikola Vucevic hit a tough turnaround jumper over Wendell Carter to tie the game. Then, after a Magic turnover, D.J. Augustin drew a charge that set up one of the most gorgeous plays of the season.

There may not be a better example of late-game execution than that (and it certainly is worthy of constant replay rather than some verbal description).

Orlando did its best to top it against Utah on Saturday.

After Terrence Ross‘ barrage woke the Magic’s offense up, the team was holding onto the lead when the Jazz tried to double Evan Fournier at the top of the key. He found Nikola Vucevic rolling to the basket who read the defense perfectly and dished it to Aaron Gordon in the corner.

It was another example of the Magic’s beautiful ball movement late in a game when the offense was struggling to get anything going. At least the team had that in common through both contests.

What was important for the Magic in both those games was how they shed poor starts to finish in the end. They stuck to what kept them in the game and made the shots down the stretch.

That is something consistent they can rely on every night. And that is a major sign of growth.

That is what winning these ugly games is really about. Doing enough to get to the finish line and then doing whatever a team has to get over it.

"“I think we’ve been good this year closing out games,” Fournier said. “It is not necessarily something we talk about or focus on. It just happens. We work on our sets. We work on our defense. We are getting better at being disciplined and I think it shows.”"

The Magic are now 10-8 in games within five points in the final five minutes.

Orlando has one of the best defenses late in games, giving up 97.0 points per 100 possessions. Here their offense just ekes by. But get the Magic in a close game this year and they have largely been able to finish.

That is all well and good. But in the bigger picture, coach Steve Clifford said the team did not inch closer to where it wants to be ultimately on this road trip — especially on offense. But the team did do something else that will be vital.

Winning “ugly” as some observers might call it, is about consistency.

"“I think every team has a way they play and the key is to play that way every night regardless of what the score is,” Clifford said. “In my time in this league, that’s San Antonio. They are going to play the way they play whether they are up 20, down 20, won five in a row, lost five in a row. And that’s where they want to get to.”"

That is what the Magic are chasing. That has been the most difficult thing to track down.

For the season, Orlando is 27th in the league in offensive rating and 13th in defensive rating. Those numbers have held pretty stead for the last few weeks. The Magic’s defense is continuing to rise, but the offense has had its troubles.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

In the last 10 games, the Magic are 27th in the league in offensive rating, but sixth in defensive rating. More notably, the team has a negative net rating in that time. It seems Orlando’s poor offense is going to hold the team back.

Yet, the Magic have found a way to win. They have gone 5-5 during that time, treading water it seems.

Stan Van Gundy used to say about his developing teams early in the season they needed to learn lessons while winning. Orlando appears to be doing that at this stage of the season. They are clearly not playing to Clifford’s standards or expectations, yet they are still putting some wins in the bank.

"“There is going to be plenty of times where there is going to be ugly games,” Aaron Gordon said. “As long as you come out with that W, that’s all that matters. We will take any win we can get.”"

Gordon said it is still early. He is not counting the wins the team has gotten so far as progress. No one is going to take the moderate success for this team for granted.

There is still an edge the team is seeking and a consistency they are seeking overall. The goal is to avoid these “ugly” games and win them outright or comfortably. When the defense is playing at this high of a level, wins should be a whole lot easier.

The Magic’s offense continues to be a sore spot the team is trying to sort out. And it might mean the Magic have to win more of these games.

But things have changed enough with Orlando the team can fight back and find ways to win and minimize these struggles.

"“I think we have shown at times we can really fight,” Fournier said. “Now we have to be consistent. it has to be a part of it. it has to be our identity. It has to be 48 minutes. When we get to the point where we don’t even talk about it, that’s where we have to get.”"

And this might be the biggest change of all. The Magic are finding something consistent enough to win these games.

dark. Next. Orlando Magic still discovering who they are

That is a true sign of progress.