Orlando Magic’s starters struggling to give Magic good start

The Orlando Magic struggled to contain DeMar DeRozan, spotting the San Antonio Spurs a lead they held on to. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic struggled to contain DeMar DeRozan, spotting the San Antonio Spurs a lead they held on to. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic have found ways to win lately, but poor starts to games are keeping them from reaching their full potential and exposing their flaws.

113. 38. 114. 29. Final

It was easy to rue the finish of the Orlando Magic’s 114-113 loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

There were breakdowns throughout the closing moments of the game. Orlando lost a four-point lead with two minutes to play and a six-point lead with eight minutes to play. There were a few turnovers down the stretch that gave the Spurs an extra possession — an Evan Fournier charge with the Magic clinging to a two-point lead stands out most.

There were plays where the Magic executed well and missed. If Nikola Vucevic’s shot had rolled in instead of bouncing out, the game is completely different and likely sways in the Magic’s favor. Not to mention Evan Fournier’s missed layup as time neared its end.

Not to mention the missed opportunities that came with lost offensive rebounds, especially after Rudy Gay missed with the Spurs leading by one in the dying moments. Derrick White’s rebound on that play forced a foul and the scramble on the inbounds that led to the final sequence.

In a close game like this, there are a lot of individual moments that swayed and turned the game. The disappointment from the defeat was written on everyone’s faces afterward.

Fournier took responsibility for missing the big shot. It is easy to distill everything into one moment.

But he, like his teammates, looked elsewhere for why the Magic lost. Coach Steve Clifford opened his press conference not breaking down the final shot but lamenting the team’s poor start.

The Magic started the game down 15-4, giving up four 3-pointers to a low-volume shooting team like the Spurs in the first six minutes of the quarter. They were in a 16-point hole at one point in the first quarter.

A lethargic start was as much a problem for the Magic as the frenzied finish. Orlando did well to rally and get back into the game. But with a better start, they might have taken care of business on the road and scored a quality win. They still should have done so anyway after taking a six-point lead in the fourth quarter.

It might be easy to blame the back-to-back for this, but the Magic have struggled with starts for several weeks now.

As Clifford likes to remind everyone, the league is not a fourth-quarter league. Far from it. Every minute and moment matters. And very often the team that wins the first quarter wins the game.

Orlando, for instance, is 14-10 when ahead at the end of the first quarter, compared to 11-22 when behind. It is far from a guarantee the Magic win when they lead after one quarter, but it is clearly a much better outcome than playing from behind.

The starts and first quarters of games have remained a problem for the Magic this season.

Orlando is getting outscored by 6.4 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter, the fifth-worst mark in the league. The Magic’s 101.5 offensive rating in first quarters is 29th in the league and their 107.9 defensive rating in first quarters is 15th.

The offense might be somewhat expected, but the fact it takes the defense some time to settle in is a bit concerning. The Magic tend to play a little bit better with more urgency, which a deficit might create. But this is not how anyone builds a consistent winning team.

The starters know that something has to change for them. And while the Magic are still adjusting to James Ennis entering the fray (he has played well individually), the group has been a bit off.

Since James Ennis entered the lineup five games ago, the Magic’s starting lineup has an overall net rating of -14.8 points per 100 possessions in 86 minutes. The Magic are giving up an abysmal 119.5 points per 100 possessions with that group together.

Thirty-four of those 86 minutes have occurred in first quarters, ostensibly when the two teams are going starters-vs.-starters. The group is -31.8 points per 100 possessions with that lineup in first quarters with a 122.2 defensive rating. The team is scoring 90.4 points per 100 possessions with that lineup in the first quarter.

There is no other way to put it other than the Magic have gotten off to poor starts in their first five games since the All-Star Break.

This is why Clifford has described the team’s offensive outburst as fool’s gold. The team is not going to get much of anywhere without some defensive consistency.

That was the case Saturday night as Orlando dug itself a hole. The Spurs posted 38 points and 158.3 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter.

Orlando’s starting group was -5 in the first quarter right off the bat. They were -3 in the second quarter and -4 to start the third quarter. For a sense of how much better the bench unit was, the Magic were -1 with Ennis on the floor despite the team being -12 with its starting unit on the floor.

Every NBA team has a run and the Magic closed the gap and took the lead by the fourth quarter. But they were always chasing the lead. That can be draining.

Maybe the answer is simply to change the starting lineup again. Wesley Iwundu was playing well before the team moved James Ennis into the lineup.

The starting lineup with Wesley Iwundu posted a -2.8 net rating in 50 minutes on the floor together. The team had a 104.8 defensive rating with Iwundu out there.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

There are likely some more regressions going on that go beyond the switch from Iwundu to Ennis in the lineup. The tam is not defending at a high enough precision level. Clifford has highlighted those struggles more publicly saying the team has to defend their man better and contain the ball.

With some of the opponents the Magic have played recently they have gotten away with it. Despite the starting lineup getting off to poor starts, the Magic have still won five of their past seven games. They have still gained ground on both the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards.

The Magic’s opponents have given them a wide margin for error. And the schedule remains fairly light. But still plenty dangerous.

The precedent and tone the Magic have set with their poor starts bleed into the ends of games. The same poor defense that hurt the Magic at the beginning of the game, hurt them at the end of the game.

Orlando is surviving and finding ways to win. They are not dead and buried with poor starts. But it certainly will not help.

And it certainly will not help when the competition stiffens up at the end of the season and in the playoffs.

dark. Next. Grades: San Antonio Spurs 114, Orlando Magic 113

Every starter knows this is a responsibility they are letting down. So even though the team was frustrated with its poor execution down the stretch. They knew it all started at the beginning.