Orlando Magic’s veterans must set the tone at every moment for team to survive

Nikola Vucevic eventually got his numbers, but the Orlando Magic never recovered from a slow start. Mandatory Credit: Michael Wyke/POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports
Nikola Vucevic eventually got his numbers, but the Orlando Magic never recovered from a slow start. Mandatory Credit: Michael Wyke/POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic’s first game without Markelle Fultz saw the team struggle to find its groove. That fault goes on the veterans who have to set the tone.

90. 38. 132. 169. Final

The Orlando Magic knew they had a tall task ahead of them Friday night.

It was their first game after Markelle Fultz tore his ACL and was lost for the season. The team was playing a rookie point guard in his stead.

Additionally, Evan Fournier was still out with back spasms after trying to give it a go yet again through pregame warmups. And the team opted to sit out Aaron Gordon for the first end of this back as part of a load management program to further the rehab on his sore hamstring.

To say this team was shorthanded was an understatement. Going up against an offense as potent as the Houston Rockets’ offense was certainly adding to the challenge.

Still, everyone has to play the games. Nothing is decided before the ball is tipped. And the Magic felt like they could rely on players to step up. Most of all their center Nikola Vucevic, the lone regular starter in the lineup for this game.

But that is not what the team got. From nearly the start of the game, the Magic fell behind and seemed to get discouraged. They did not even give themselves the chance to come back for what was undoubtedly the most disappointing and frustrating game of the season so far.

And it left coach Steve Clifford livid after the game.

"“This game had a lot more to do with lack of readiness and a lack of professionalism and a lack of effort than it did talent,” Clifford said in a 30-second postgame press conference. “I’m not saying we would have won. We had a lot of effort players who made no effort. Mistake after mistake after mistake. We aren’t beating anybody like that. We’ve been a good effort team all year. I don’t expect it to happen again. That’s your story, nothing else mattered.”"

He could literally take his pick where he wants to start with this one.

He could choose the poor closeouts that allowed a player like James Harden a seemingly free run into the paint or kick out to the 3-point line for open shooters where the defense was late recovering.

He could choose the inefficient and motionless offense, playing with no aggression or intensity that could never find its rhythm.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

He could choose the lack of attention to detail on both ends that led on at least two occasions outlet passes getting intercepted or going out of bounds from a basic lack of understanding or awareness of the team’s gameplan or purpose of play.

Either way, it all starts with the two most important people on the roster — the head coach and the star and veteran players. They all set the tone for what this team is trying to do. And especially now that the team is short-handed, they are the ones who must lead the team out of the hole.

"“That’s important every night,” Nikola Vucevic said after Friday’s loss. “The best players on the team, the leaders of the team have to set the tone and the guys kind of follow. When you are shorthanded and guys are for the first time playing major minutes, you want to help them with that. That has to be the case every night for the best players to lead. Otherwise, it will be difficult.”"

Trusting the star

Nikola Vucevic put up his numbers — 22 points, 12 rebounds and 8-for-19 shooting. It was not the game he wanted though. The Houston Rockets surrounded him and made his life difficult, knowing what few weapons he had around him. But he also was not effective enough trying to score and get to the basket or make plays to get his team in the right spot.

The Orlando Magic put the ball in his hands more and trusted him to lead the team. He became the fulcrum of the offense. But maybe not even he could rescue a team that was on such few options — and even the options they thought they could rely on were not coming through for them at key moments.

He was not able to elevate his game to elevate others. That is not Vucevic’s usual role but what the team needed from its star.

Vucevic also struggled in the paint. While he had some nice contests and challenges, he largely failed to stay connected with Christian Wood, giving up several lobs to the Rockets big man in a never-ending parade through the paint.

Seeking energy

Undoubtedly when a team is missing key players, they have to step up with their energy and focus on the gameplan. This is when they have to make sure their principles are stronger than ever.

That is not what happened though. Playing a lot of new faces, the Orlando Magic were out of sorts from the beginning of the game. Their offense never really getting going. The team failed to protect the 3-point line or the paint. They were constantly on their backfoot.

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How to solve that with the team’s starting point guard out? That is a trickier question.

"“I didn’t feel like we played Orlando Magic basketball tonight,” Khem Birch said after Friday’s loss. “I think we kind of gave in. A lot of our heads were down — even me — in the first quarter. You can’t have that kind of attitude especially when you have a lot of guys out.”"

Clifford deserves some fault here too. The Magic did not have a lot of time to prepare a gameplan and this is an area where all of Clifford’s preparation can fall short. The team put a lot of players in situations that did not leave them set up for success.

The team certainly could have played better and they let the deficit get to them. It was visible how disappointed the team was in the moment. Heads dropped and the energy dropped too. The young players seemed as discouraged as anyone else as they forced shots and plays or simply stopped doing the things they need to do to win.

Whatever the team went over in the morning walkthrough went out the window pretty quickly. The team’s heads definitely bowed down in frustration and disappointment. What Clifford taught did not stick in this instance.

Led by the veterans

That included Nikola Vucevic and some of their veteran players. And that is something that cannot happen.

Khem Birch said he entered the game and made an uncharacteristic mistake. It was not the only one for the team. He did not except himself from the effort the team played with, acknowledging this is not the kind of tone he has to set as a veteran.

It is up to them to carry the team and be its heartbeat now that Fultz is out. And with how undermanned the team is, it is they who have to be the constant.

Vucevic has long been a constant figure offensively. And he is the unquestioned leader of the team. One area he certainly still has to improve is lifting his team up.

He has proven himself to be a good safety valve for the team. But he also sets a tone for the team in other areas. And one thing he still has to learn how to do is make plays outside of his area that can lift the team.

Those kinds of plays will be even more important now that the Magic are shorthanded.

He too was playing on his back foot.

Whatever response the team has will start with him.

"“Just show we are disappointed with how we did tonight and show it is an off night and we didn’t play well,” Vucevic said about preparing for Saturday’s game against the Dallas Mavericks. There were a lot of things we did tonight are things we are usually good at doing. Guys will respond right away. We have always done that in the past. We have always come back with a much better response.”"

One game is not going to make a season. It is not even a sure sign the Magic are in trouble without Fultz. Too many players were out hurt and too many players were unavailable with short-term injuries for that kind of big-picture concern.

Next. Grades: Houston Rockets 132, Orlando Magic 90. dark

But the Magic will have to make a statement and change their effort in their next game Saturday. And whether they will be able to do so should start with Vucevic and the tone he sets for his team.