Orlando Magic need leadership to push team past recent struggles

The Orlando Magic struggled to shoot once again as their best players did not step up to help against the Milwaukee Bucks. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic struggled to shoot once again as their best players did not step up to help against the Milwaukee Bucks. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic are falling short right now. Their leadership from their best players will help determine just what this team ultimately does.

38. Final. 111. 89. 95

Coach Steve Clifford did not have any complex answers for the Orlando Magic’s latest loss — a 111-95 defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks. The team had lost 10 of its last 12 games and had fallen far from the comfort of a playoff spot.

That concern had seeped its way into the questions directed toward Clifford. The Magic have started falling down the standings. A loss to the Bucks was not at all surprising, this is a team on a historic pace. But still, the team’s slide is noticeable.

Clifford was not taking the bait to look at the team quickly catching up beneath his team. The Washington Wizards are now just 2.5 games back of the final playoff spot. Orlando’s season series win (a sweep at that) will be small comfort if it comes to that. But after getting out to such a large lead the playoffs no longer seem comfortable.

The message then was simple: Play better.

Clifford has had several variations on this message throughout the season. But it all hints to the same problem. The team has not gotten the best from its best players. When challenges have faced this Magic team they have not been able to pull the team through.

And simply against elite teams, the Magic need their best players to make plays. That has been the struggle.

Clifford said after one game this year that preparation and execution in the game comes down to three things — the coach, the preparation and the best players. All three things must be in concert. And far too often, the Magic’s best players have not been able to step up to the plate.

A coach can put players in the right spots, but ultimately players have to make plays. And especially a team’s best players have to make plays.

The Magic are not a team with one guy who can carry them through the tough stuff. There is no Tracy McGrady able to go through scoring binges and lift an overall struggling team to 40 wins. There is no Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal or Luka Doncic that can use individual brilliance to break the team out of a funk.

Orlando’s margin for error is smaller because of the players the team has. It requires everyone to be locked into the game plan and play with attentiveness.

This is where leadership matters most. The Magic may not have their best players able to carry the team offensively. But they need their best players to be most locked in to push the team forward.

Consistently, then, this is where they struggle most.

The Milwaukee Game Plan

The Magic’s game plan against the Bucks was fairly sound. They looked to clog the lane and crowd Giannis Antetokounmpo, taking away as many of his close shots as possible. Aaron Gordon did about as good as someone can do on the likely NBA MVP.

According to NBA.com’s player tracking, Giannis Antetokounmpo shot just 7 for 21 against Aaron Gordon in three games this season, scoring 22 points and dishing out 12 assists in 61 possessions the two matched up.

Antetokounmpo had a “poor” game scoring 18 points to go with 18 rebounds and nine assists. That is what a poor game looks like for a player who affects the game in so many ways.

But the rest of the Magic’s defense struggled. They collapsed the paint but struggled to contest threes.

Then again, the Bucks made plenty of contested shots. It was Orlando’s inability to track Brook Lopez (a 29.4-percent 3-point shooter who hit all five of his 3-pointers in Saturday’s game) and Khris Middleton and Wesley Matthews that cost them.

That is part of Antetokounmpo’s gravity. And the Magic seemingly made the same gamble the Bucks made — collapse the paint and see if the opponent can beat you from the outside.

That might have worked if the Magic could have gotten their defense set more often. But there was no offensive energy or rhythm throughout much of the game, especially early.

The team was only left to wonder how things would have been with better shot-making.

The Magic generally executed well. They had only nine turnovers for the game, stunting the Bucks’ fast-break offense. But consistently they missed open shots.

Shooting struggles

According to NBA.com’s player tracking statistics, the Magic were 10 for 35 on shots where the closest defender was more than six feet away, including 6 for 25 on 3-pointers. They were 6 for 17 on field goals where the closest defender was 4-6 feet away.

Orlando averages 18.9 field goal attempts per game where the closest defender was more than six feet away and 22.6 percent field goal attempts per game where the closest defender was 4-6 feet away.

Highlighting the Magic’s offensive and shooting struggles, the Magic make just 38.9 percent of their shots where the closest defender is more than six feet away. That is undoubtedly a very poor percentage and at the heart of the Magic’s struggles (they made 42.9 percent of such shots on 22.5 attempts per game last year).

Orlando is not getting the same quality of shots as it did last year. But even so, the team is missing these good shots at an alarming rate. That was the case Saturday too very clearly.

The Magic had the execution part down Saturday. They got open looks from spaces where they can score. They simply could not hit the shot.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon combined to miss all 13 of their 3-point attempts. Aaron Gordon missed four 3-pointers with the closest defender more than six feet away and Nikola Vucevic missed all seven of his 3-pointers with the closest defender more than six feet away.

It is hard to fault anyone for taking those shots. This was the exact shot the Magic were working their offense to get and what they hoped would drag the Bucks out of the lane to free up driving space or post-ups for the Magic’s other players.

That is ultimately what started working when Terrence Ross and the bench group got on a scoring binge to cut the lead down to nine points.

But the damage was already done through the first two and a half quarters. The Bucks had staked a large enough lead to coast to the finish. The Magic never did snap to attention.

Lifting each other up

It is not merely just shot-making from this group. It is easy to see heads drop when these open shots are not going in and affect the team defensively.

At the end of the day, the Magic’s defense is what will carry them to the playoffs. And even though Orlando still ranks seventh in the league in defensive rating. But the team is the only one among the top-10 defensive teams with a negative net rating, that speaks to how much the Magic’s offense drags the team down.

This has remained a problem throughout the year. The offensive drain on this team taking it out of its rhythm and focus on both ends. The Magic’s attention to detail defensively has been lacking. The moments where the Magic are dialed in defensively are not often enough.

This is where missing Jonathan Isaac has been most apparent. His ability to create blocks and steals can spark the Magic’s fast-break offense.

But that is not coming back any time soon. The Magic have to manufacture this energy.

More importantly, they need their team leaders — Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier — to step up and execute.

The Magic have had faults in their coaching — Clifford’s insistence on certain rotation decisions has been frustrating — and their gameplan — despite attesting to pick up the pace, the team has been stagnant in every sense of the word.

But right now, the Magic need their best players to perform more consistently. It will take everyone because the Magic are not a team that can get on someone’s back to get to the finish line.

Still, they need to get more from their best players. They need to set the example and, most importantly, they need to perform.

Clifford said he has to do a better job putting them in positions to succeed. That much is still true. The coach and the gameplan have to be better.

But if Orlando is going to compete with the best teams in the league and make the playoffs in general, it will take a more focused and consistent effort from their best players to get there.

dark. Next. Grades: Milwaukee Bucks 111, Orlando Magic 95

Sometimes, the solutions are not rocket science.