Orlando Magic putting themselves in the hole with poor starts

Evan Fournier's return has generally boosted the Orlando Magic's offense, but they have also suffered from some terrible starts. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Evan Fournier's return has generally boosted the Orlando Magic's offense, but they have also suffered from some terrible starts. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

121. 84. 107. 38. Final

Coach Steve Clifford will often tell the media who question him about the end of a game or a late-game decision by deflecting somewhat to a moment earlier in the game.

It was not the fourth quarter that cost his team the game, he would say. Many games are won or lost in the first quarter. How teams start is as relevant to how they will play the rest of the game as anything else. This is a 48-minute game.

Sometimes that kind of argument felt a bit tired. But the point is certainly well taken. Every minute should matter and a team having to scramble and get back into a game from the start is much less likely to win. The tone of a game is set in those first minutes.

An old golf adage is probably worth repeating — you cannot win a tournament in the first round, but you can certainly lose it.

No double-digit lead is ever safe in the NBA — another familiar line Clifford gives when the team closes out a lead or struggles to hold onto one — and there are always brief moments when games change.

For an Orlando Magic team with such a small margin for error, though, a poor first quarter can feel like a death sentence. It can feel like a daunting trip.

The Orlando Magic did erase a 15-point first-quarter deficit in its win over the Charlotte Hornets on Monday. But that was very clearly playing with fire. The tone the Magic needed to set in their game Wednesday against the Sacramento Kings clearly set the team back.

"“We didn’t have great energy on either end of the floor,” Clifford said after Wednesday’s game. “We have a good enough team to have a good season. But we need everybody every night. There is not a lot of room for error. We can’t have five guys play well and four guys not. That’s not easy, but that’s just the way it is.”"

Clifford pointed to the first quarter as a problem specifically, singling out the team’s transition defense especially. Sacramento had 15 fast-break points and 23 points off 14 turnovers. In the first quarter, the Kings had six fast-break points on 2-for-5 shooting in transition.

It remained an issue throughout the game. But the tempo was set early.

The Orlando Magic’s poor first quarter against the Sacramento Kings was no isolated incident. The team is starting from behind. And Wednesday, they finally got burned by it.

Sacramento outscored Orlando 32-23 in the first quarter, leaving Orlando with an uphill climb throughout the entire game. The Kings led wire-to-wire and the Magic were chasing them throughout.

Sacramento made 12 of 22 shots including five of seven 3-pointers. The Kings were getting any shot they wanted for the most part grabbing nine assists on those 12 field goals. The Magic never set a physical tone defensively and never seemed capable of slowing them down.

The Magic’s starters were -11 in the opening part of the game itself before Khem Birch checked in with 6:52 to play in the first quarter. Orlando was not able to get much going offensively and the Kings had them chasing from there.

To be sure, this is not the start the Magic wanted to get off to. This is not the tone the Magic wanted to set.

And, in another Clifford-ism, the Magic need their best players to play well to win. Especially considering how down they are of their best players.

"“It’s our defense,” Evan Fournier said after Wednesday’s game. “I thought our offense was fine. We scored 107. Our defense just wasn’t good period. We knew coming in they are an offensive team that can really score. They have guys that can do multiple things. We didn’t execute defensively.”"

The third quarter was only slightly better as the starters took the floor together. The Kings outscored the starters 15-12 in the first five minutes of the third quarter, extending their lead to 18 points from their halftime lead of 15.

In all, the Magic’s starting group of Cole Anthony, Evan Fournier, James Ennis, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic finished the game -12 in 10.7 minutes on Wednesday. It was their most-used lineup in the game.

And its struggles can certainly point to the defensive end more than the offensive end — they scored a 100.0 offensive rating together. But they gave up 152.2 points per 100 possessions. The Magic never were able to get a stop or even a rebound when they did get a stop.

To be sure, the Magic have to get their defense right before anything else if they are trying to succeed this season.

"“We just didn’t play Orlando Magic defense tonight,” Birch said after Wednesday’s game. “We haven’t played it for a while now. They took momentum and we couldn’t get it back.”"

The starters cannot get all the blame. Sacramento built its lead at various points in the game. But the Magic’s best players were unable to help the team take that next step necessary to get back into the game. Orlando got no closer than 11 points in the second half.

As much as plus-minus is worth, every starter had a negative plus-minus while every bench players (aside from Gary Clark, who plays a lot of minutes with the starters so Aaron Gordon can play with the starting unit) had a positive plus-minus.

The only conclusion might well be that something is off with the starting lineup. Certainly, that was the case in Wednesday’s game.

The starting group

The group typically plays well together. So maybe this was a case of one bad night. The group has a net rating of +8.6 points per 100 possessions, including a 118.3 offensive rating, in 48 minutes. This is the third most-used lineup for the Magic this season.

Orlando is not about to abandon this grouping for long periods of time. They have plenty of proof that it can work.

But in the first quarter, they have struggled significantly. The same group has a -23.0 net rating with a 136.4 defensive rating in 21 minutes together. Whatever rhythm they find later in games is not what they have out of the game.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

That kind of play burned them against the Kings who kept the offensive pressure on the Magic into the third quarter. Orlando was not able to make up the ground that was lost.

It certainly is not a healthy way for the team to start things so far.

The Magic rank 26th in the league with a -13.5 net rating in the first quarter. Their 114.1 defensive rating in the first quarter is 24th in the league.

The Magic have proven themselves capable of erasing deficits throughout the year — even since the Markelle Fultz injury. But that is no way to play. That is not going to sustain itself.

None of this on its face is fatal, of course. Teams can recover and come back. The Magic stagger their lineups effectively enough and with Terrence Ross can make up ground quickly.

But that is not how this team wants to play. This team needs to be playing from ahead and they need to set the tone from the beginning.

Orlando has struggled to find any kind of consistency this season. The team never seems to know what it is going to get. And while there is plenty of fight to reel things back in. The best teams do not have to reel things back in every game.

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This Magic team is still seeking its identity. And that process has to start with the starting group and especially how they start the game.