The Orlando Magic have followed a similar refrain the last three seasons. This year may follow that same path. Now is the moment to change their fortunes.
He was not hiding in the practice court attached to the back of the Amway Center. He was out in view of the public — and the FOX Sports Florida cameras — trying to put up a few more shots and get his game right. It has been a shooting slump for him that has darkened some of his defensive and playmaking brilliance in the last few games.
Gordon has averaged only 13.9 points per game his last nine games, shooting 36.7 percent from the floor (although 43.9 percent from three). He has dished out 4.6 assists per game and grabbed 7.8 rebounds per game. Gordon has done a lot, but he knows he can do more.
And so he was out there quietly grinding on the main floor, trying to find some answers before heading home. Just like this team is searching for answers as it has lost three games in a critical six-game home-heavy stretch of the schedule.
In that time, the Orlando Magic have slipped out of the Playoffs in the standings, trailing the eighth-place Detroit Pistons by 1.5 games entering Christmas. The familiar refrains about a team that has failed to sniff the Playoffs for the last six years are popping up again. Scarred fans used to losing are preparing for the familiar swan song of defeat.
Orlando is in a bad losing rut now. The season feels like it is at a critical turning point. In the next two weeks, the team will certainly know whether the Playoff push can continue or be abandoned.
But players will completely determine that outcome. If the Magic want to shed the labels of their tanking, horrid past and play those meaningful games in February, March and April, how they respond today and to this losing streak will say a lot about their character.
This losing stretch — where the Magic have lost 10 of their last 15 games — might very well be the fall that was expected. The Magic have been in the bottom 10 and near the bottom five in net rating for most of the season.
Orlando has outperformed its statistics for most of the season. The team was never completely on some firm ground. The Magic are what many thought they would be, with that little dash of hopefulness mixed in early on.
But that part is not written. There is still the chance and still the hope the Magic can turn things around. They are not dead until they are dead. And the Eastern Conference will do its darndest to keep the team in it.
Unlike last year when a swoon far worse than this eliminated the Magic from Playoff contention in early December, the team’s goals are still clearly in front of them and attainable. It is far from the time to jump ship or pack it in for the year.
Orlando lost a game Sunday that had more Playoff meaning and pressure than the team has seen throughout this six-year rebuild. It failed to live up to it — falling behind the streaking and now-7th place Heat by two games and failing to clinch the ever-important tiebreaker in the process.
But there is another day. There will be another chance.
And it is how the Magic respond now that matters most. And that might be the toughest job remaining for Clifford.
As Clifford said after Sunday’s game, the team has lost its way some. But things are never as bad as they seem — just like they are never as good as they seem during a win streak. There is a point in every season for every team when they lose their direction. The trick is getting it back.
That is what the team has struggled with for the last three years.
In 2016, the Magic were 19-13 on Dec. 30 before losing 25 of their next 27 games to fall out of the Playoff race. In 2017, the team was 15-18 on Dec. 26 when it lost 12 of the next 15 games. And, last year, the Magic were 8-4 on Nov. 11 before losing 27 of the next 31 games.
It was almost always late December or early January — around this time of the year, in other words — when the bottom began to fall out. This team has followed that predictable pattern.
It is no wonder fans are feeling uneasy with the team’s current losing streak.
The road for the Magic does not get easier this year. This homestand was supposed to be a chance to get some wins before a difficult road trip. The Magic have made things harder on themselves with losses in their last three.
But Orlando still has a chance to right the ship. The bottom has not fallen out. And the team still has control over whether they will continue in this Playoff race or fade into obscurity.
This is the moment for the team to make that decision and to right the ship. How the Magic respond to this losing streak will show fully and finally whether they will ever take that next step and compete for the Playoffs or if this group is forever destined to tease early in the season before fading at the first signs of trouble.
This is the time to show what this team is made of. This is the stretch that will test the team’s character.
Ups and downs are natural during the course of the season as Clifford put it. The .500 teams in the Magic’s experienced similar lulls.
Nothing is written yet. The team has shown a resilience and an ability to fight back at its best. The losses of late are mostly of the team’s own doing with its poor execution and increased turnover rate.
It is not the team’s effort that has slowed Orlando down of late, it is pure execution. And self-inflicted wounds are something the team can correct.
They have that power and that ability. And it is up to them to take that step.
This is the moment for them to do so. This is the moment they must do so.
Gordon toiled on the court alone after Sunday’s game. The grind begins anew. Perhaps with more urgency this time. The Magic are looking for answers again. And they all must come from within.
They all must come now.