Orlando Magic seek consistency as they pick themselves up again

Markelle Fultz and the Orlando Magic are still seeking consistency. But they have established a good habit of fighting back from tough defeat. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
Markelle Fultz and the Orlando Magic are still seeking consistency. But they have established a good habit of fighting back from tough defeat. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic have a healthy habit of playing better the games after crushing defeats. But their search for consistency is the story for a young team.

Markelle Fultz fell to the ground early in the first quarter of the Orlando Magic’s 120-114 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was diving for a loose ball in the early stages of the game and was doing what he could to fight for his team’s spot.

As he got up from the fall, he felt his finger bending in a way it should not. He said he surmised he had dislocated his finger on his left hand and feared it might be broken. Markelle Fultz immediately started flexing his hand, tightening it into a fist and trying to play through it.

He was able to pop the finger back in. And all Fultz said he could think of was playing through it. He did not want to be like D.J. Augustin after he dislocated his finger in November when he went to the ground in pain and forced the team to call a timeout, needling the veteran point guard.

Fultz checked out of the game at the next timeout, going back to the locker room. The team diagnosed him with a sprain to his fourth metacarpal. Within minutes the team had wrapped two of his fingers together and he was available and ready to play again.

Fultz said he reported no problems at the team’s practice Thursday other than general soreness. He will be good to play through the injury for the time being.

The decision to play through it and to keep going is emblematic of where the Magic are after a disappointing loss to the Thunder. Fultz said he had a decision to make in that moment: would he let the injury sideline him or pick himself up and play through it.

Fultz played through it and the one thing that has been consistent about this Magic team is how they respond to disappointing defeats like Wednesday night. They get back up the next day and fight again.

"“I just think it’s all about we believe in each other,” Fultz said after the team’s practice Thursday. “This team we learn from our mistakes. It’s more so we’ve just got to be consistent with it. I think we all believe we can do it. We know we can do it. It’s all about being locked in. That’s what we are telling each other when we are playing with each other and reminding each other we need the full 48 minutes and we need to be together.”"

The Magic had a terrible defensive performance. Coach Steve Clifford said the team usually allows somewhere around 10 plays where they get beat off the dribble per game, a number he said was above the league average. In Wednesday’s game, the Magic gave up 19 such drives.

On a more basic level, the Magic gave up 120.0 points per 100 possessions in Wednesday’s game. That is the fourth-worst defensive performance for the team this season. It continued a somewhat troubling trend where the Magic have had below-average defensive performances — the team has given up 110 points per 100 possessions in four of the team’s last five games.

It is more than halfway through the season. These are problems the Magic probably should have figured out now. Their inconsistency, after all, is the reason the team’s record is what it is.

They have faced many disappointments like Wednesday’s game. And while the wins may not be consistent, the Magic have shown an ability to lock back in and improve. Losses like this rarely linger.

Of Orlando’s 10-worst defensive performances this year entering Wednesday’s game, the Magic are 5-5 in their next outing. In nine of those games, the Magic improved defensively. In four of those games, the Magic put in a defensive performance better than the team’s average defensively and better than a point allowed per possession.

The question is not whether the Orlando Magic will respond with a better performance in their next outing Friday against the Boston Celtics. The question is whether the team can sustain that improvement and lock in for longer.

And the question is whether they can keep winning.

"“It was a tough loss,” Khem Birch said after practice Thursday. “I feel those are the type of losses we should have won. We have a critical three games. That is something we key on after a tough loss. That is something we want to be consistent at is losing and then trying to win the next game and win consistently.”"

Clifford noted that some of the slippage and inconsistency in technique recently for the Magic have had is a product of a lack of practice time. With the jam-packed schedule the Magic have played — 15 games in 27 days since Dec. 27 — they have not been able to hold a formal practice since Jan. 14 in Los Angeles.

While NBA teams go through stretches like this, they have to find a way to persevere. The frustrating part is the Orlando Magic had a great defensive performance against the Charlotte Hornets to one of their worst Wednesday against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Dealing with adversity and disappointment is all part of the NBA marathon.

"“If you have a great year in the NBA, you win 50 games,” Clifford said after practice Thursday. “That means you lose 32 times. If you can’t handle putting a lot of work in to get ready for a game and handle the frustration and disappointment of not playing well and losing, there is no way you are going to get ready for the next game. You have to play the game, learn quickly from it. We have a good group to do that. And then you have to move on.”"

There is certainly a lot of disappointment to deal with and grow from for this team. The Magic have struggled to find their footing this year. While they have done enough to stay in the playoff race, they know they can be a lot better.

A lot of the talk at this time of year is about putting things together. The Magic’s schedule will lighten up — next week, for instance, will afford plenty of practice time with no games between Monday and Saturday — and give the team the chance to recover and lock back in.

It was around this time last year that Orlando started its 22-9 run to the playoffs. The goal remains to improve as the season moves on.

Still, the present has been frustrating even if everything remains in the Magic’s own control.

"“I think it’s a little frustrating for me and my teammates,” Fultz said after practice Thursday. “It is more disappointing that we let us lose games that way. We control what we can do and I think it’s just putting a full 48 minutes together. We show spurts of it. We do a little bit in the first half, maybe a little bit in the second half. Our thing right now is we need to put a full game together both offensively and defensively. We are finding the line, but we need to put it together.”"

The Magic are still putting all those pieces together. But the one thing they have shown they will do is put in the work to pick themselves back up and play better the next time.

Next. Nikola Vucevic filling a box score is not enough. dark

The question for the rest of the season is whether they will do that more often than not in the final half of the season.