The Orlando Magic entered Sunday night one game behind the Miami Heat for the eight seed in the East. In a pivotal mid-season game, the Magic fell short on both sides of the court.
This is not the first three-game losing streak the Orlando Magic have had this year. In fact, it is not even the first one they have had this month.
At the beginning of December, The Orlando Magic faced a similar skid against the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and Dallas Mavericks. The team pulled itself together to win a pair of “home” games in Mexico City and felt like it had set itself straight.
Orlando’s recent slump shines a light on the team’s biggest flaws.
The Magic have become prone to turnovers, have become too dependent on the offensive success of center Nikola Vucevic and have shown an inconsistent defensive effort. All three put equal nails in the coffin.
Sunday’s game against the Heat only made these flaws more prevalent.
The Magic racked up eight turnovers, leading to a quick double-digit deficit, as Orlando trailed 28-17 at the end of the first quarter. They were never able to reel in their careless ball control — finishing with 19 total turnovers.
Too many positive opportunities ended with empty possessions. As momentum built, they would shoot themselves in the foot.
In the second quarter, Evan Fournier was able to fight through Heat defenders and grab an offensive rebound. But his pass back onto the court bounced off Nikola Vucevic’s legs and rolled out of bounds.
Shortly after the Evan Fournier-Nikola Vucevic pinball debacle, Orlando grabbed another offensive board. This time Vucevic secured the ball himself, but he traveled before he could kick it out.
In a game that was within 10 points at the time, two possessions resulting in Magic points could have swung the momentum of the game. Unfortunately, Orlando fell victim to themselves with two unforced turnovers.
This season, the Magic are 12th in the league with a 14.2 percent turnover rate. Largely, Orlando has been good at protecting the ball. It was a hallmark of their strong run of play.
But since Dec. 7, the Magic have the third-worst turnover rate, turning the ball over on 16.6 percent of their possessions. This increase has narrowed an already small margin of error for Orlando.
The turnovers may be a by-product of the team’s offensive reliance on Vucevic.
In coach Steve Clifford’s system, the center took the league by storm during the first 25 games. But the NBA took notice. Teams key in on the big man now. Double-teaming Vucevic in the post, opponents force Orlando’s guards and forwards to control the game and hit shots.
It has been an effective formula for opposing defenses. During the past six games, the Magic own a league-worst 39 percent shooting percentage.
Sunday night’s game was no different. Miami rotated into effective double-team sets that rendered Vucevic relatively helpless. He finished the night with only eight points on 3-for-12 shooting.
At times, the Magic seemed disoriented without Vucevic’s inside threat.
Their offensive sets deteriorated. Too many possessions Sunday night ended with Orlando chucking up a prayer as the shot clock hit zero.
While part of the Magic’s struggles can be attributed to playing from behind on the scoreboard, the offense as a whole was running on a flat tire. That has been the case for weeks now.
Orlando’s troubles are not only on the offensive end. The Magic defense is playing the worst it has thus far into the season.
During the past eight games, Orlando is allowing opposing teams to shoot nearly 48 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point range. The team’s 110.2 defensive rating ranks 19th in the last eight games. But Orlando’s league-worst offense makes that low mark all the more glaring.
Miami topped out at an impressive 50.6 percent field goal percentage and 51.6 percent from beyond the arc. The Heat scored 123.7 points per 100 possessions, working the Magic inside and out.
The Magic defense fell apart when the second half began.
The Heat identified the space the Magic were allowing behind the 3-point line in the first half and exploited it. Miami used high screens to create even more space behind the arc and sparked a 20 point outburst from guard Tyler Johnson.
Orlando struggled to defend high screens and high pick-and-rolls, building upon a theme that coach Clifford believes began during their overtime loss to Denver at the beginning of the month.
Rather than fighting through the screens Sunday night, Magic guards tried to run around them. This leaves the screen defender on an island, forcing them to choose whether to close out or drop back and defend the roll.
Orlando’s guards need to fight through screens and keep the pressure on the ball handler instead of allowing them space to see the court and take advantage.
Like every team, the Magic have flaws. Their flaws just so happen to have been on display recently.
Magic teams of the past dwell on these kinds of stretches, but if Orlando wants to stay competitive as this season progresses they need to learn and improve. Quickly.