The Orlando Magic made their lone national TV appearance on Wednesday. They drew plenty of praise even as their biggest weakness was exposed.
There will be a time when hearing the likes of Mike Breen and Hubie Brown calling an Orlando Magic game will not feel special. The team has operated largely in the shadows during the regular season. Even their playoff appearance last year was seen mostly on NBATV or with lower-rung broadcast crews.
In the regular season, at least, the Magic have rarely had the national TV stage.
Their last national television game occurred on the final night of last season, a win over the Charlotte Hornets that clinched the team’s seventh seed in the playoffs. Doris Burke did her best to put the team over and promote the turnaround the Magic were about to complete that evening.
The Magic have long been outside the national picture clearly. They have gone through a difficult rebuild and never put together a team worth paying attention to on a national basis or drafted a player that demanded that kind of national attention.
This year, Orlando was gifted only one nationally televised game, even after the team’s playoff appearance (NBATV appearances are not counting for this exercise). The March game in Miami against the Heat figured to be a showcase for the team.
Then last week, things quickly changed. The league decided to move Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans into that slot in March against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks. The Orlando Magic got a make-up date in essence in Wednesday’s matchup with the Boston Celtics.
The Magic played well. They hung tough and moved the ball to give themselves a chance. Aaron Gordon continued a strong run of play with an impressive 23-point performance. It was a tight game through the first three quarters, neither team leading by more than nine entering the final quarter.
But that same reason they got taken off their March date with the Heat lingered for the Magic. And the fourth quarter proved why the Magic are where they are at and why ESPN appearances are still rare.
The broadcast made sure to point it out too.
This Magic team is sound and good, Brown said at one point in the fourth quarter. But they lack a star player. They have to do everything together.
And in the big moments, it is clear that this will prevent them from doing anything substantial.
That was the case in a 116-100 loss to the Celtics on Wednesday at TD Garden. In the fourth quarter, Jayson Tatum took over, scoring 14 of his 33 points. He hit tough shots over some good defense and the Celtics slowly expanded their lead.
The Magic could not keep up.
Aaron Gordon (23 points for the game) tried to carry the team, but he committed a few key turnovers. He could not get his shots to go. Orlando turned to Terrence Ross and his shooting gravity, but he could not find the range late.
Fans watching the Magic for the first time on national TV saw a team that was energetic and full of fight. But they immediately saw a team full of flaws. Perhaps a fatal flaw.
This team does not have a star. It does not have a player who can take over a game, create a shot when the offense is stuck or carry the team to the finish.
It has been the glaring omission from this team throughout the year, costing them games against the Utah Jazz (Donovan Mitchell), Denver Nuggets (Nikola Jokic) and Atlanta Hawks (Trae Young). Orlando has been susceptible to individual brilliance they simply have no answer for.
The ESPN broadcast was full of praise for the Magic throughout the night. They did their best to put the team over and tell the national audience this was a group to watch.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens complimented the Magic in his fourth-quarter interview saying they were a tough team, playing good physical defense. Perhaps he also recognized how little Celtics fans watching the national broadcast understood this Magic team.
Everyone tried to put this Magic team over as a group that deserved some respect.
But they summed the Magic up succinctly too. This is a team full of NBA-quality players. This is a team that is a playoff team in the Eastern Conference struck with injury. But this is a team that is missing the most essential element to winning basketball — that star.
It is not rocket science. The thing holding the team back from winning at a high level is a high-level player.
Orlando was hoping to see some players emerge this year.
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Nikola Vucevic was obviously the team’s All-Star last year. This year though, the team has lacked consistency from him as he has shot a low field goal percentage for his time with the Magic. In this game, Nikola Vucevic struggled to shoot and take advantage of a matchup advantage in the post. Vucevic has been absent far too long.
Gordon took control of the game in the second and third quarters to pace the Magic in this one. But his season has largely been a disappointment. He has shot a career-worst field goal percentage and his scoring is way down. Injuries are at least a part of that story for him and he has started to play better — 17.2 points per game on a 48.0-percent effective field goal percentage in his last five games.
Neither player is a player who can create their own shot or get a good shot in isolation. Isolation is probably the one area where Gordon has a bit too much confidence in himself.
Maybe Markelle Fultz, whom ESPN used in advertisements for the game throughout the week, can grow into that. Maybe Jonathan Isaac can still reach that level offensively. But neither are reliable on that front quite yet.
The trade deadline on Thursday is not likely to provide those answers. There do not appear to be any disgruntled stars for the Magic to chase to speed this process along. Orlando is not going to force something that is not there on the trade market. They know they are still a young team.
But all these conclusions, laid bare by a well-prepared national TV broadcast and understood by a fan base watching the same problems present themselves throughout this season, are not going away.
Orlando has reached a point where it can compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But it is missing an element to get over the top.
That element is the one that will help the team get on ESPN and TNT more often. The same element that will get the team out of the first round and beyond.
The Magic represented themselves well on national TV. They showed what they are about.
But they also showed why they are not on there more often. They do not have the dynamic player they need to force everyone — especially the defense — to pay attention and can beat them even when they are focused.