The Orlando Magic are likely at the low point of their season as a tough schedule and fatigue have set in. There is still time to reach their potential.
The Boston Celtics were routing the Orlando Magic in the fourth quarter. They crowded and pushed the team around throughout the second half. The officials buried their whistles but the Magic were not doing much to force their hand either.
The score did not reflect how much Boston was torturing Orlando, however. The score was still tight.
Evan Fournier was doing his best to keep the team in the game. He was the only player for the Magic with any kind of offensive rhythm. It was not for his lack of trying that Orlando was in a hole. And so he kept trying to get to his spots in the mid-range or get to the basket or hoist threes.
But eventually the low was too much for him to get past too. As the Magic trailed by five points with about three minutes, the desperation of trying to salvage the game giving the team new energy, Evan Fournier was hoisting threes. Orlando was searching for rhythm and was unable to find it.
The Celtics easily dispatched of the Magic 109-98 with the Magic unable to find that last push to make the game competitive. Desperation can make for a better effort and the Magic found some focus.
But like so many other times this year, they could not get over the hump. Like so many times recently, the Magic seemed like they left a better effort on the board. Like so many times before this season, it feels like Orlando should be a whole lot better and should be playing a whole lot better.
All this is true. The game Friday against the Celtics might have been one the team should have won. Boston was without Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Enes Kanter. Indeed, the Magic built a 16-point lead thanks to a masterful 12-minute stretch of offense and defense.
The question is not whether the Magic are capable of playing high-level basketball. The question is whether the team can sustain it for a full 48 minutes and a full game. That has always seemingly been the golden goose.
Orlando is struggling to find itself right now.
The team has lost touch with its identity, giving up its strong defense. Its star player is mired in one of the worst shooting and scoring slumps in his career. The Magic are struggling to be consistent and give a consistently focused effort.
It is a question that does not have a clear-cut answer. But the one thing that is clear is that this is the lowest the Magic have been all year. They are likely near their rock bottom for the season. At least, they have to hope this is close to their rock bottom.
They have lost five of their past eight games since going on the West Coast road trip. They have been further below .500 this year (the most is five games, and the team currently sits at 21-25 with a game against the LA Clippers and Miami Heat on the horizon) but it does not feel like the team has been in a bigger rut than this.
During those last eight games, the Magic have given up 111.0 points per 100 possessions, 15th in the league among teams’ last eight games. Orlando prides itself on its defense and defensive intensity. And that has been inconsistent throughout the year.
When the Magic have won, it was because they righted their defense and played at a high level. When they have struggled, like they are now, they have struggled to find their defensive footing.
Coach Steve Clifford said the team’s defense is a bit out of whack right now. At all levels, the team is late on its closeouts. They are giving up dribble penetration and losing connection on screen and rolls. The team’s angles for directing players where they want to go is all off.
The numbers show that. And so the Magic are not winning.
Fatigue is certainly a factor. No one will use it as an excuse but it is undeniably part of the Magic’s recent downturn.
Orlando has played 16 games in 29 days. That is 1.8 days for every game. There has been very little breather for this team with just one instance of having multiple days off in that stretch. And that was on the road while the team was in Sacramento. Orlando has not had consecutive days off at home since Christmas.
It is life in the NBA. Every team will go through a stretch like this. But Clifford has pointed out specifically and publicly especially during the team’s trip to Charlotte to finish the West Coast trip. He knows the schedule has worn on his team. With injuries and talent limitations on the roster, he has had little avenues to turn to.
Certainly, some of Clifford’s tactical decisions deserve some criticism. He could have managed this stretch better, maybe sprinkling in some fresh legs or changing some rotation decisions to account for this fatigue.
But the problems are still much more fundamental. Orlando’s best players have struggled most in this stretch of play — with short bursts of brilliance that have helped deliver a few wins.
The chase is for consistency.
The way shots are falling short and the team has lost focus defensively is certainly a sign of the team’s fatigue. The lack of focus and attention to detail are part and parcel of a team struggling to find their energy.
This is not a team that can withstand little slips in attention or focus — fatigue or otherwise. The Magic have a small margin for error. When one element of their team is off-kilter, they have little chance to defeat quality opponents.
And so when there is a prolonged stretch of poor play, the team hits their low. The Magic have to find a way to get back to their defensive identity to get out of this.
The good news is the schedule will afford them that luxury if they can get past the next two games. This very well might be the lowest point of the season for this team — just like it was around this time last year.
Orlando will get four days between games next week. A chance to take a breath and re-center themselves for the stretch run. The schedule will also get considerably easier.
Should the Magic be better than they have been this year? Absolutely.
Orlando has given away games in the early part of the year and injuries have zapped the team of any consistency throughout the course of the season. The Magic wanted to use a strong start to climb the Eastern Conference hierarchy.
They certainly failed to do that and that is the most disappointing part of the season.
But despite all this, Orlando is still in playoff position. Unlike last year, the Magic will not need to go into a crazed run to reach the postseason — although, maybe that desperation was a good thing. The schedule sets up for Orlando to make another run.
Like last year, these dark times too shall pass.
But they will only pass if the team locks in and understands that this is rock bottom (or close to it). It will only pass if the Magic put the work in and focus on the details to get themselves back out.
They have shown this year they are more than capable of doing so. They have shown the ability to lock in defensively for long stretches and string together wins. Despite some high-profile losses, the Magic have been very successful against weaker opponents.
This is the lowest the Magic will likely feel all season. It is really up to them if they are going to climb up and reach what is left of their potential for this season. The opportunity is certainly there.