Orlando Magic still struggle to measure up to last year’s stirring run

The Orlando Magic escaped with a win but still cannot escape the expectations set from last year. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic escaped with a win but still cannot escape the expectations set from last year. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic have been unable to escape comparisons and questions about last year’s stirring playoff run. The truth is they have not lived up to it yet.

64. 116. 38. Final/OT. 112

The question and comparison for this Orlando Magic team are inescapable. They are constantly reminded of their success and how good they can be because they have been here before. There must be some secret key that can unlock that group. Something that can spark that same run as they did last year, going 22-9 to reach 42-40 and the seventh-seed in the Eastern Conference.

Everyone sees it in them. And so the Magic face the question seemingly at every point of struggle.

They came together right around this point of the season defensively and suffocated teams. The offense clicked and the team found easy baskets. They fought and scrapped.

It was fun. The Magic had all the look and feel of a playoff team. They were easy to fall in love with because there was that underlying grit in the team.

As coach Steve Clifford put it after the Orlando Magic entered this year’s All-Star Break with a 116-112 win over the Detroit Pistons, that group wanted to show up the league. They wanted to show they could win. They were not the same old Magic they knew before.

This year has been entirely different. They have the institutional knowledge of getting through the playoff journey. The playoffs were no longer a surprise but an expectation. They were finding out that winning at this level is hard and the marathon is cruel.

Injuries have knocked them down a peg and knocked them off their rhythm. It is impossible not to acknowledge that. But something intangible still remains.

This season has been a struggle. It has been a grind to get through. And all the while, the memory of last year and just how good this team can be remains.

And so the question still lingers in the air. With the experience of last year, do you feel you can kick it into gear? Do you feel like this team is readying to make a push as it did last year?

Players have tried to dismiss this notion. There is no extra gear to get to. The team just has to play better. It is impossible to compare seasons.

But the question cannot be so easily dismissed. Last year, with virtually the same roster returning (injuries granted), is a blue print for this season.

The reality is the Magic understand there is another level the team can get at. One that is fully in their control to get to.

They have to play better — cut harder, rotate with more precision, make that extra effort, make that shot. It is really that simple. If they want the comparisons to go away, they have to live up to that run from last year.

Right now, the Magic do not measure up to the legacy and expectations they built last year. They are not on their way to that run to get back to .500. It will take another crazed run.

Fortunately for them, the Eastern Conference is forgiving enough to leave them in playoff pole position for the final spot. Orlando certainly wanted more than that with the group the team brought back.

The standard was set last year and the Magic have failed to live up to it.

That has been more than apparent throughout the season. Fans and everyone else has seen a team that has vastly underperformed — even though the team is a game ahead of last year’s pace (the team was 23-32 at game 55 last year and 24-31 this year). Expectations have a way of changing how everyone perceives teams.

Even in Wednesday’s game against the Pistons, it was clear to see that inconsistency.

The Magic built a 22-point lead through quick passing and shot-making to go with forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. The Magic had complete control of the game.

Then the intensity dropped. The Pistons got free for 3-pointers and the Magic became much less precise. They could never reel them back in.

At least the Magic have had one consistent trait this year — their determination to fight. When that urgency kicks back in, the Magic can again look pretty special. Orlando erased a seven-point deficit to get to overtime and won the overtime period.

It was an important and big win heading into the All-Star Break. But even then, Clifford could point to several moments that showed the cracks in the armor for this team.

The Magic led by two points off a pair of Markelle Fultz free throws when Christian Wood came flying in past three Magic players without so much of a move to box him out to tie the game. Miscommunication on defense led to Langston Galloway‘s tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation.

Clifford pointed to it after the game. He said what was on everyone’s mind. The Magic have not righted the ship despite 50-plus games and the playoff position they are in.

With the All-Star Break here and the season entering crunch time, it seems like it is time to correct these issues.

Steve Clifford said after the game when he discussed the team with Jeff Weltman and Magic management was about the team’s versatility and height. But it was something intangible that got the team over the hump and provided so much promise.

Clifford said the team was very physical at the end of last season. They were always the one to hit first and they were third in the league in defensive rebound rate.

This has been a point all year. The team is currently sixth in the league in defensive rebound rate at 74.5 percent. Even that small of a slip or giving up offensive rebounds at the wrong moments can change everything.

Earlier in the year when confronted with some of these similar-sounding numbers, Clifford dismissed it as a sign but not the be-all of the team’s physicality. He has often complained in postgame press conferences about the team’s inability to get into their opponents physically.

Regardless of anything else, the Magic have been easier to score against and much more inconsistent defensively. Again, against the Pistons, the Magic had long stretches where they were dominant defensively in forcing turnovers and contesting shots at the rim. Then there were the long stretches where their defensive attentiveness slipped and the Pistons were able to rain down threes.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Clifford said it plainly. This team can play so much better. The team’s effort has been better than most teams in the league but still needs to be better. Orlando’s margin for error is still very small. A slip in any direction leads the team to struggle.

It might also show just how close the Magic might be to putting all those pieces together. And that might be the most frustrating piece to this puzzle of all. These are all things that have long been correctible.

The question is whether 50 games into the season, the Magic can correct them.

They snapped back to attention enough to win Wednesday against the Pistons. They put together the big shots and locked down defensively in the final three minutes to get the game to overtime.

That team is still in there.

But the questions still bare repeating. They will not stop until the team solidifies its playoff positioning and makes the run — the same kind of run against a similarly tame schedule as last year — that it did last year.

Why isn’t this team performing to its potential? How does it measure up to last season’s stirring run?

Next. Grades: Orlando Magic 116, Detroit Pistons 112. dark

That is probably the question the team cannot escape.