The disappointment from the Orlando Magic was palpable.
Coach Steve Clifford, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic each got on the team’s media teleconference after the game and had the same feeling of frustration and disappointment. The team knows it is so close to something special but it has been unable to get over the hump and pick up the wins that can truly define and change their fortunes.
Friday, on a smaller scale, was no different.
Fournier said the team gave away the game on multiple occasions. It was one they should have. Gordon, when told of nearly reaching a second consecutive triple-double, said it did not matter. He needed 20-10-10 instead of 17-9-9 to deliver his team a win.
The standard for the Magic even as they go through this period of upheaval trying to find their way again without Markelle Fultz has not changed. They know every game they play will count in the end.
They may look back at the win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday as a game they stole that set up their third straight playoff appearance just as they may look at Friday’s 120-118 loss as the difference between a playoff spot and a lottery trip — or homecourt in the Play-In Tournament or a road game.
There will be no getting back a game like this. Ultimately results determine perceptions.
The Orlando Magic are finding their level after Markelle Fultz’s injury and are making progress toward a consistent level of play. But these losses are piling up and could prove costly in the process.
The Magic are still finding themselves in the wake of the injury to Fultz. Getting Fournier back, the team has looked closer to the team it envisioned and has slowly started to find a way it can play to get wins and right the ship this season.
But there are no moral victories in the NBA. Not in the midst of a playoff race that already looks like it will be a battle to the end with multiple teams in a packed Eastern Conference.
This one just stings.
"“This one is painful,” Fournier said after Friday’s game. “We fought really hard and I felt like we had the game twice. They just stole it away from us. Congrats to them. They played a good game. They stuck with it. We should have won that one. It’s really hard to swallow.”"
Progress without results
The Orlando Magic’s five-game road trip, the longest of the first half of the season, was a journey of disappointment and frustration. It started with a disappointing blowout loss to the Boston Celtics where the team simply did not look prepared or ready to play, even after a surprise day off to recuperate and rest.
But the team progressively got better during the trip.
The team went toe-to-toe with a Brooklyn Nets team facing Kevin Durant at his best. In a defensive slugfest, the Orlando Magic nearly overcame their own offensive shortcomings to defeat the New York Knicks. And the Orlando Magic finally put everything together, overcoming a 10-point second quarter, to come back and defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves on Cole Anthony’s buzzer-beater.
None of those games were complete games. And the Magic might easily have come back from this road trip with a disastrous five-game losing streak (eight total). The team still looking lost without Fultz at point guard.
Friday’s game against the Indiana Pacers was the first time the team seemed to have all the pieces together.
It was a game where the Magic found their offensive flow and hit outside shots. A game where the team put together long stretches of solid defense and forced the Pacers into a slugfest.
A game where the team had the lead late and just needed one shot to go down or something to break their way. A game where they overcame deficits time and time again and took bad breaks and questionable calls late that they had to overcome.
The Magic saw it all. They perhaps saw most important they are capable of playing in and winning games against established Eastern Conference playoff teams.
But here they are again, right back where they were last year, trying to figure out how to take that all-important next step.
"“That one was rough,” Aaron Gordon said after Friday’s game. “That was our game to win. We had plenty of opportunities to win that game and we didn’t. That one was tough especially because we had it and we felt like we gave it away.”"
Perhaps it is worth recognizing the baby steps the team has taken.
Putting the pieces together
The Orlando Magic’s statistical profile still looks like one of the worst teams in the league — the team’s net rating of -5.7 points per 100 possessions is 27th in the league, even worse than the 3-12 Detroit Pistons. There is still a lot of work to do and it is still uncertain if the team can rally.
The season still feels like it could go toward the deep Lottery just as much as it could lead to a third straight playoff push.
But they have done it before. And they have started to put some of the pieces together.
In the way of moral victories, Friday’s loss was a continuation of many of the things the team did well in the comeback win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday.
But this is not a team about moral victories. This is a team that is trying to make the playoffs. It has long since graduated from that mode of thinking.
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They know they have to win as they figure out how to play again. The team moved the ball well for 29 assists. They hit open shots. They pushed the tempo offensively and got deflections and steals on defense. They were much more disciplined and tied together on that end, even with some late-game misses.
The Magic looked like a functioning team, able to compete and get baskets consistently and grind through adversity or any soft spots in the course of the game.
"“I think we’re finding our groove defensively,” Gordon said after Friday’s game. “I think we started out slow but as the game progressed, I think our defense was pretty good. But we have a lot to improve on. As the season goes on, we’re going to get better and better. We’ll be playing our best basketball come Playoff time.”"
That is all the team has tried to do and tried to find since Fultz’s injury. At some point, that will no longer be the storyline. At some point, this team is going to be who it is.
They hope they are still figuring that out. They hope that the last game and a half is a sign of progress that can become permanent.
A sign of their way to play. If the Magic play with this kind of effort most nights, they likely would come out with a win. Finding consistency is what differentiates the playoff teams from the lottery teams.
This Magic team knows that as well as anyone else.
"“We played better,” Evan Fournier said after Friday’s game. “The Pacers are a really good team. They play good offense. They play good defense. They are very well balanced. It would have been a terrific win on the road. I felt like we dominated them. That’s what makes it harder. We should have never gone into overtime in the first place. I felt like we had them on their heels for the five minutes. We are playing better. But who cares?”"
So Friday was a baby step in the right direction. But ultimately, the only stat that matters is who wins the game. The good teams learn their lessons while still eking out wins.
The Magic are still trying to build back up there. And there is no getting this one back. A costly lesson in development.