The Orlando Magic should adjust lineup to close games

Steve Clifford and the Orlando Magic are waiting like the rest of us for the league to restart. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Steve Clifford and the Orlando Magic are waiting like the rest of us for the league to restart. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic may need to make a few adjustments to their starting lineup to close out games when they resume playing games inside of the NBA bubble in Orlando.  

The time is finally here.

The NBA games have resumed which means Orlando Magic fans will get to see a glimpse of their team after a four-month layoff.

It has been a strong start on the court — the injury to Jonathan Isaac has certainly devastated the fan base and shaken the team a bit after his long road back into the lineup.

Orlando can count two blowout victories over the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings to start things off. In both games, the Magic held 30-point leads, speaking to their execution and focus as things have gotten started.

Those two teams are both below .500. Now comes the difficult part as Orlando will face four of the Eastern Conference’s best teams in their next four outings. This will be a critical time for team growth as they prepare for what looks like a certain second straight Playoff berth.

This will be the team’s true challenge. It is something they have struggled with throughout the season — Orlando’s 5-26 record against teams with winning records is the worst mark of any team inside the NBA’s campus.

Plain and simple: The Magic have struggled against the teams currently in the Playoff picture, going 10-24 against the 16 teams currently in the Playoff picture.

Even the better teams outside of the Playoff seeding have given the Magic trouble. And this is where coach Steve Clifford’s foundational approach in establishing habits and consistency can sometimes go awry. His dependence on rotation can hurt the team as they try to get after games.

Some games need minor tweaks and adjustments as the game goes on and based on the floor and rhythm of each game.

Sticking to his rotation

The last time the Orlando Magic took their home floor on March 2, they were blown out, losing 130-107 to a mediocre Portland Trail Blazers squad led by CJ McCollum’s 41 points. Orlando would recover to win three of the team’s final four games on the road to head into the hiatus feeling like momentum was on their side.

But the score of that game does not tell the entire story. After all, the Magic were only down by six points at the start of the fourth quarter.

Anytime you are outscored 38-19 in the fourth quarter with rotation players in the game, there need to be major adjustments immediately to the roster to close out future games.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, in a crucial part of the game, Steve Clifford ran his second unit of D.J. Augustin, Terrence Ross, Michael Carter-Williams, Gary Clark and Mohamed Bamba. The team had none of its starters in the game and only Ross as part of its usual closing lineup.

In this situation, it was the starters who came back and lost the lead, but we have to figure out why that was the case, and that lineup has not been terrible (+20.2 net rating in 21 minutes, not a large enough sample size to make conclusions). But there is clearly a significant drop off offensively.

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So was it a mistake to bring the starting lineup back in so soon against McCollum and company in a crucial part of the game? The Trail Blazers ended up outscoring the Magic by 21 points in the fourth quarter. The Magic were simply not able to contain the Blazers’ offense.

It happens, but it happens for a reason.

Coaching is more than managing egos and roster spots. It is finding the detail in certain situations where a player may be fatigued and need to be taken out of the game for someone who may be less talented offensively but can bring more energy on the defensive side of the ball.

It is recognizing the strengths of some players in key moments and learning how to stick to the hot hand no matter if a player is a starter or not.

He may have been considering the fatigue of the starters, key injuries to players and just the mere fact you want to see what certain players can do off the bench in crucial moments in a game.

A lot of things could have come into play in that type of coaching decision. Clifford tends to stick closely to his preset rotations and rarely deviates from them. But as games get tighter and the playoff pressure increases, this is where the Magic have to be willing to break with that and go with more trusted players.

This is where every second and moment and play counts a whole lot more.

Balancing the rotation

Steve Clifford often talks about what happens when they break the lineup and move away from the starters at the beginning of games. He often talks about finding a balanced rotation, likely referring to these moments when the team needs a key starter in to make other players work better as a unit.

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Clifford should not start all the starters at the beginning of the fourth, but a lineup that better integrates those players should help provide better rotational balance.

For instance, a lineup of Mohamed Bamba, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross and Michael Carter-Williams gives the Magic a better rim protector and a better perimeter defender with more athleticism and length to begin fourth quarters than the current group — the Magic have not deployed a fourth-quarter lineup yet in the campus because of their two blowout wins.

That lineup has played 14 minutes together with poor results (a -44.4 net rating with a 140.7 defensive rating). But the sample size is not enough to completely give up on it. But a lineup like that or replacing Mohamed Bamba with the more solid Khem Birch might provide the balance the team needs early in fourth quarters.

A more balanced approach that sees at least one starter in the game throughout the fourth quarter is needed at the start to solidify key moments when the opposing team can get easy layups due to lack of energy or the lack of IQ defensively.

A willingness to adjust

While Steve Clifford usually sticks to a preset rotation — and certainly will in the early games inside the campus while the team gets back into shape — he has been willing to deviate in big moments.

Where Clifford typically does deviate from his set rotation is in playing Gordon more minutes — like he did playing Gordon the entire second half in the Orlando Magic’s Feb. 24 win over the Brooklyn Nets.

As the Magic get into their seeding round schedule and closer to their normal rotation, their lineup to close out games should look different to start the fourth quarter.

Hopefully as the Magic get closer to the playoffs, their rotation will look more like it did at the end of the season before the hiatus with starters playing closer to 30-35 minutes rather than 25.

That will mean leaning more heavily on Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon especially and increasing Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross’ minutes, particularly in the fourth quarter.

The Magic have plenty more options in the backcourt where they can use Michael Carter-Williams as a defensive pest and D.J. Augustin as crafty offensive player until Markelle Fultz is ready to come in. Both of those players can help split minutes at guard to give Fournier and Ross time to recover before the final push in each game.

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If Coach Clifford considers this move for fourth quarters the Magic will be in a better position to win games and come out the gates with some sort of winning streak.