Frustration consuming Orlando Magic as the abyss approaches quicker

The Orlando Magic lost their cool in Friday's loss to the LA Clippers as frustration took over the team. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic lost their cool in Friday's loss to the LA Clippers as frustration took over the team. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

116. 77. 90. 38. Final

The venting of emotions started in the first quarter.

Nikola Vucevic, usually composed and stoic on the floor, a steady heartbeat for the team on both ends, was frustrated with the physical play and lack of ball movement on the floor, kicked over a trash can when he got to the sideline. It takes a lot for Vucevic to get angry like this, but it happens on occasion.

He cleaned things up and composed himself as the Magic limped through the rest of the first half.

The third quarter was when everything else unraveled.

The Magic saw the work of an 11-0 run to start the half quickly dissipate. And Vucevic was hot about the physical play again. It finally broke him and may have broken the Magic.

He tried posting up Serge Ibaka, pump faking him to draw a foul and get some space for a shot. he might have gotten some contact but he received no call. As the LA Clippers ran down the court, Vucevic trailed the play, sprinting toward the official.

He was getting his technical foul for this one. The frustration bubbling over.

The Magic only fell deeper into the hole and the team’s losing streak continued.

"“It’s very frustrating,” Vucevic said after Friday’s game. “When you try and try and not a lot of good comes out of it. It’s very frustrating. We’re just not very good right now and it’s very hard to play that way. It’s difficult in this moment. You try to compete and win and it doesn’t happen. It’s difficult and we keep losing by larger margins. It’s not easy to deal with and obviously, frustration comes out.”"

The Orlando Magic lost their 10th game in their last 12 outings as frustration became more visible of a team that is losing a grip on its season amidst the pandemic and all the injuries.

That frustration was seen everywhere throughout the game. Steve Clifford was hot during the ensuing timeout about a missed out of bounds a few possessions before. The officials gave him a technical when he was still after them once the Clippers inbounded the ball.

There were little frustration aggressions too throughout the entire roster.

Evan Fournier fouled a player in transition after missing a 3-pointer, succumbing to the frustration of his own poor shooting night.

Aaron Gordon, trying too hard to show up against star players like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, fell into the bad habit of trying to score on his own, stifling ball movement and settling for mid-range jumpers. He too would get frustrated with wild drives to the basket and forced pushes into traffic.

It all added up to one of the worst performances of the Steve Clifford era, coming during one of the worst stretches of the Steve Clifford era in a 116-90 loss to the Clippers on Friday at the Amway Center.

This Magic team is not playing to its potential or to its expectations. And having lost 10 of its last 12 games, this Orlando team is staring back into the abyss they escaped from two years ago.

Playing worse

An exasperated squad knows it must be better. The frustration comes in from knowing that they can be better.

"“We’re not making progress,” Clifford said after Friday’s game. “We have to be able to do that. It’s critical for every team in this league to continue to get better. You have to have an approach where you can handle nights like this. We have to hang in there. The easy thing to do is to give in. I don’t think we’ll do that. The only thing you can do when things aren’t going your way is to work and compete.”"

The Orlando Magic gave up 116 points and 117.2 points per 100 possessions. Their usually stout defense now ranks 21st in the league in defensive rating — giving up 111.0 points per 100 possessions.

They have talked throughout the last week about how they need to tighten up on that end and be more active. And there were certainly moments where the team played its brand of defensive basketball.

But they were just spurts. The regular season is about consistency and right now the Magic are hardly consistent.

It would help if the team had a functioning offense. But without a defense helping to generate some easy opportunities and a true point guard to lead and organize the team, the Magic have looked even more lost on that end.

Orlando, with a 91.7 offensive rating in Friday’s game, dropped to 28th in the league in offensive rating, scoring 104.8 points per 100 possessions.

In all, the Magic’s -6.2 net rating is the fourth-worst in the league. Orlando has played this season as one of the worst teams in the league. Their record merely does not reflect it. . . yet.

"“You have to be able to handle disappointment,” Clifford said after Friday’s game. “You have to be able to handle times that things are not going your way. I think the frustration part shows they care deeply. That’s where we have to commit to a plan. The magic word is working and competing your way through it.”"

Weight of expectations

Things are certainly not looking good and it certainly seemed to be weighing on the team. The frustration was palpable as they struggled to search for answers.

The grind of this season especially has hurt the team — from the constant testing, restrictions on movement at home and on the road and the injuries the team has faced. Clifford said he has to do a better job making sure the team is afraid. He has gotten far out of his comfort zone as much as anyone else.

But players too have found it difficult to replicate the things that made them even moderately successful last year. Yes, players are missing who would help ease that burden, but the team can still accomplish many of the basic things that can make them a playoff team.

Simply put, the Magic have to play better. And they know they can.

Clifford said he spoke to the team about handling and managing their frustrations. Everyone is cognizant of the goals they want to accomplish and that they need to be better to accomplish them.

Friday, it seemed, they looked and felt more cognizant of the abyss they might be plunging into.

As Vucevic sat in the chair for the postgame teleconference, he let out a frustrated sigh. His answers were shorter and less expressive. He, as much as any other player on the roster, has suffered through losses like this over and over again.

Making the playoffs and performing well in the playoffs has meant most to him perhaps. He has been the standard-bearer for the Magic through many lean years. He was finally ready to feast even on that small scale.

The margin for error shrinks

The whole franchise has done that. They never hid from their playoff ambitions or how important they feel it is.

What was perhaps unspoken was how small the team’s margin for error was and the not-small chance that the season could get lost quickly. The team always played on the knife’s edge.

It was the same way last year as they fell to the similar 20-31 record they had in 2019 when they rallied for the playoffs.

Nobody is giving up on anything despite how bleak it looks.

"“No matter what, just keep fighting,” Terrence Ross said after Friday’s game. “I feel like we went through this last couple of years. Now we have to figure it out for a third year how to fight back and figure something out to get us back on track. It’s definitely tougher.”"

Steve Clifford said the team just needs a win right now. They need something to feel good about and build upon. That will relieve the simmering tension and frustration that has built up collectively on the roster.

That will not be easy.

But it feels like the season is on that edge again. And with a West Coast road trip looming — not to mention what is anticipated to be an extremely difficult second half of the season — the Magic know they have to right the ship quickly.

That has added to the pressure.

The question is whether the team will be able to focus that pressure positively or if more outbursts are on the way.

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The frustration with this team is very real. They expect more from themselves. And right now, they are not getting it.