Orlando Magic can’t hide execution missteps when chips are down

The Orlando Magic got themselves to overtime, but their execution missteps throughout the game made clear their flaws and the team’s recurring problems.

The Orlando Magic were always scrambling. Even up by two points with two minutes to go, the Magic were already beginning to see their play tear apart.

The team got the ball inside to Nikola Vucevic on a few occasions and used old reliable to score points.

But far too often in losing a three-point lead with 1:26 to play, they were settling for outside shots. The strong passing and cutting that helped them top 100 points for the first time in seven games were slowing to a crawl.

The end of games come down to late-game execution. Those final minutes of regulation and overtime are all about a team’s ability to get and make good shots. Just like it was about the Magic’s ability to prevent good shots down the stretch.

Until Orlando’s crazed comeback to end regulation — that featured D.J. Augustin hitting three free throws to send the game to overtime — the team was struggling to create good shots. And their defense continued to be porous as it was throughout the final three quarters of the game.

Orlando had a strong start and did everything it felt it needed to win. And then let it all go away throughout the game and in the final minutes.

In that final 1:26 of regulation, the Magic gave up a 3-pointer to Devin Booker. Had a pass deflected from D.J. Augustin, the eventual hero of the night, and turned over to Devin Booker for a runout one-handed jam. An Evan Fournier drive that Mikal Bridges blocked off the backboard and Nikola Vucevic could not control on the tip. And then a missed 3-pointer.

The overtime period did not feature too much better results.

After the team executed a beautiful play to get Vucevic a pick-and-pop mid-range jumper, the Magic missed their next nine shots. Some were missed open shots or missed isolation shots. Terrence Ross got a 3-pointer in transition with 36.8 seconds left that clanged no good. He had one earlier wide open in the corner that missed off the side of the backboard. He rebounded it and missed the follow lay-in to keep the Magic down two.

The good news was that if not for T.J. Warren making two difficult floaters, the Magic’s defense did its job to give them a chance. But that chance was quickly gone with the team’s inability to hit shots in the end.

“Shot making to be honest,” Evan Fournier said of the team’s struggles in overtime. “We had good looks. We just couldn’t finish it. I’m thinking about it and we had good looks overall.”

These are all symptoms of larger problems for the Magic. The end of games reveals a team’s character more than anything else.

Orlando once again showed a willingness to fight but also showed just how much the team still struggles to stay organized and get over the finish line. That fine line between winning and losing is even sharper for the Magic.

The team again struggled with turnovers throughout the game — committing 17 for the game turning into 24 points for the Phoenix Suns. None seemed bigger than that turnover Booker turned into a dunk that gave the Suns a two-point lead and control of the game with about a minute to play.

Orlando’s pick-and-roll defense again suffered from mistake after mistake. Booker got a lot of free reign to round the corner when he was not bulleting around screens on the perimeter for shots. Warren had an array of floaters that stymied the Magic all because he could turn the corner and get downhill.

It was on and on again. Orlando could do nothing but foul. And the Suns found their rhythm.

“We had some good looks that we missed,” Vucevic said. “We had some that were a little quick. But it’s hard in overtime when you go 0 for 9. We did get some stops a couple times in a row. But we have to score as well. I don’t think our offense was the issue tonight. Our defense wasn’t at the level we needed to win the game.”

And on top of all that was the fatigue that was clearly setting in for the Magic down the stretch. With opportunities to run in transition in overtime, Orlando seemed to slow things down and walk the ball up. Most of their shots were coming up short.

In an overtime game, Aaron Gordon played 42 minutes, D.J. Augustin played 41 and Nikola Vucevic played 39. They were playing far more minutes than usual and it felt out of necessity to try to win the game.

Every player in Orlando’s starting lineup had a positive plus/minus while every player off the team’s bench had a negative plus/minus. The Suns went on a backbreaking 17-2 run to take control of the game in the second quarter with the Magic’s second unit on the floor.

Execution takes pushing through fatigue to find that little extra at the end of games. Orlando still had its chances to win this game. But that lack of a second unit is also one of the clear weaknesses and something coach Steve Clifford is still trying to sort.

“It’s the whole challenge,” Clifford said. “Part of the overtime is those guys are out there so much and so long, but it’s out of necessity. We haven’t played the same lineup that much because it doesn’t work. . . . We broke the lineup in the first half and we lost the lead quickly. The problem is those guys can’t play minutes like this — we have eight in the next 14 nights — I’m going to have to figure out ways to do that.”

And that is part of what is looming. The Magic again saw their weaknesses laid bare and could not overcome their own mistakes. Even with the offense suddenly awakening, the team did not have its usually reliable defense.

Once things got off the track, it was hard to reel it back. The Magic’s margin for error is small and they know this. Against any team, they know they have to play well to win. There is no easy victory for this team.

With the chance to win the game, the Magic struggled to make the plays they needed. Even against a Suns team with a similarly small margin for error and their own execution issues.

Orlando is deep in a rut with several reasons why the team is unable to climb out. And they are still trying to learn and grow in these moments to get out of it.

“It’s definitely a part of the NBA, of a season,” Fournier said. “It’s how you handle that makes the difference between the good and the bad teams.”

But right now, the Magic are struggling to do that. And the losses are piling up as the season slowly gets away from them with each miscue and misstep.