Orlando Magic struggle to answer their big questions in the playoffs

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has formed a great gameplan, but the team still finds itself short in several areas. (Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images)
Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has formed a great gameplan, but the team still finds itself short in several areas. (Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic had the fight and spirit to get a vital Game 4 win. But then the Milwaukee Bucks buried them in a run and they had no answers again.

121. 89. 106. 38. Final

The Orlando Magic had the energy and intensity. They had the strategy and fight.

Everything was lined up for them to score the biggest win of their season and force a surprising Game 6 against the Milwaukee Bucks juggernaut, evening the series at two apiece.

There is that keyword. They are a juggernaut. A dominating offensive force with the league MVP driving everything forward. They have shooters and playmakers. Their defense sinks into the paint and forces you to hit lower-percentage long-range shots or strange flip shots.

Orlando knew it needed to be about perfect to get one game (which they were). A second game would require a heck of an effort.

The Magic gave it, trailing the Bucks by three points entering the fourth quarter. And then the onslaught began. And every question anyone has had about this team came back to the forefront.

The Playoffs reveal a player’s and a roster’s deficiencies in plain sight. With so much focus on individual matchups, it becomes easier to pick off flaws and exploit them.

So here were the Magic, exposed for their lack of shot-making, their lack of playmaking and their lack of perimeter size (that more thanks to injuries than anything else) or perimeter defense (also partially due to injuries).

When the Bucks made their run, the Magic could not stop the bleeding. That last push staggered them back too far.

Orlando was asked every question. For 36 minutes, the Magic seemed capable of answering every one. But that is not enough.

"“It’s tough when you play well for three quarters,” Nikola Vucevic said after Game 4. “We played well today for three quarters. In the fourth quarter, that’s the important time when you have to execute and make shots. Credit to them, they picked it up when they needed to and took care of business.”"

Steve Clifford, trying to steal some rest for his key players, put a bench lineup out on the court. Khris Middleton and the Bucks buried the Magic from there, going on an 18-2 run and scoring 15 straight points.

Orlando trying desperately to get offense out there went surprisingly small. But Middleton kept firing away — over Evan Fournier, over Markelle Fultz and over everyone else. He was suddenly in rhythm and the Magic were without an answer.

The Magic would cut back into the league once they found their footing, getting it to seven. But Milwaukee knows who it is. And despite Orlando’s best efforts, the team still has no answer for Giannis Antetokounmpo.

If Milwaukee eventually advances out of this series — all but certain following an 121-106 Game 4 win to take a 3-1 — it will have gone through a battle to get there. That has certainly made some Bucks fans uneasy.

But this is the playoffs, winning is all that matters. And with their best effort in a must-win game, the Magic still came up short.

Problems on the surface

No one is faulting the Orlando Magic’s effort. No one is faulting the way the team played or the fight and energy they played with.

But all those issues that were so apparent about the roster have bubbled back to the surface.

"“I think that in that fourth quarter when they went on that run, we made too many mistakes down the stretch time,” Markelle Fultz said after Monday’s loss. “When we needed to be locked in the most, we made too many errors on our behalf. You can’t make mistakes against teams like that in critical moments. I think we shot ourselves in the foot with that in the fourth.”"

The Magic have played with more focus since the series began. But even that has not been enough.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

This Orlando team is clearly deficient. And the team is certainly frustrated with the way its season went.

Some of the good elements bubbled up too. There is still plenty for the Magic to build around, as one eye begins to turn toward the offseason and the development of the 2021 team.

Vucevic turned in another stellar game as he continues to carry the team offensively. Vucevic has shed any thoughts of last year’s playoff struggle, showing growth and development to step up in these big games.

Markelle Fultz shook off a poor Game 3 to lead the Magic’s offensive attack with 15 points, five rebounds and seven assists. He dug out loose balls and got the Magic into their offense quickly. Orlando had energy and it was because of Fultz’s energy for sure.

Terrence Ross kept finding new ways to get his shot even with the Bucks trailing him and crowding him so effectively.

But Orlando was always playing with fire.

The team committed 16 turnovers for 17 Bucks points. They gave up 3-pointers at the end of the second and third quarters that felt like free points to a Bucks team that could play a bit lax and still compete.

Key players like Evan Fournier (12 points, 4-for-14 shooting) and D.J. Augustin (six points, 2-for-6 shooting and five assists) continued to struggle with their minutes as the lead ball handlers.

Orlando discovered quickly — especially with Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac out — how little depth it actually has. Or better, depth that is a threat to score.

Can the Magic count on making 18 3-pointers (they made 19 in Game 3 after all) every game? Can this team compete while shooting just 41.4 percent — including 9 for 24 in the fourth quarter?

Searching for answers

The stats do not show the effort and energy the Orlando Magic put in this game. But they are not stats that support a winning team. Their defense was on point most of the night, but the Bucks still played from ahead for most of the game. Orlando always needed a run to scratch out a small lead.

The undermanned Magic scrambled and did all they could to stay in the game. But the Bucks had every answer.

"“It was a good fight,” Fultz said after Game 4. “That fourth quarter, we can’t have that happen. Especially going up against a team that is this good. We can’t go into the fourth with a game that close and a chance to steal the game and make mistakes like that. A team like that is going to take advantage of that.”"

The task of defeating Milwaukee would always be a big one. The Bucks had the MVP and a ton more weapons. They had played at a higher level all year long. The Magic knew they could compete.

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But when you are on this stage and that playoff win is so close, there is no choice but to expect to be able to grab it and reach it.

And there, predictably, the Magic again fell short. There, Orlando again is asking all the questions that haunted it all season long:

Where will the shots come from? How do they space the floor? What happens when an elite team makes shots? What happens when the defense breaks down or they can target one of their weaker individual defenders?

What happens when the lights get brighter in the postseason?

The Magic may have been able to answer some of those questions better this time around than they did last year. But Orlando is perhaps needing to ask some bigger questions before the team returns to this stage again.

It is not yet time to turn fully to this yet. The team still has one game remaining to prove itself and extend the series to another game. Anything is possible and the Magic have shown they can compete.

"“Our guys have really good character,” Steve Clifford said after Game 4. “It was a disappointed locker room. We had put ourselves in position. These games are the tough ones down 3-1. But I’d be surprised if we didn’t come out with a great approach and play good again.”"

Nikola Vucevic said it will take a team effort to hit that extra level. Even he has more he can do. Markelle Fultz said the Magic are going to lock-in. They are not going to give up or give in. They are not going to pack things up and go home with another game to play. Milwaukee will have to earn its spot in the second round.

But this one stings. Terrence Ross in his postgame presser was clearly still looking for answers for the fourth quarter. He sighed with some frustration trying to process his thoughts on what happened. The Magic never recovered.

It is now win or go home for Orlando.

But the bigger picture still remains. Those same doubts and questions still remain.

Next. Orlando Magic need offensive force from the start. dark

The playoffs ask a big question of every team. How a team answers them determines their fate.