To make progress, Orlando Magic have to master the basics

The Orlando Magic again struggled at the very basic things that made them successful in a loss to the Toronto Raptors. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic again struggled at the very basic things that made them successful in a loss to the Toronto Raptors. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Final. 123. 81. 108. 38

The Orlando Magic’s 123-108 loss to the Toronto Raptors was not about Fred VanVleet and his historic night.

It is easy whenever a player gets a gaudy 54-point performance and makes 11 of 14 3-pointers to chalk the game up to individual brilliance. And, to be sure, VanVleet made some incredible plays and some difficult shots to set the Raptors’ franchise record.

But as it is with so many other things, it is all the pieces that lead to those moments that actually constitute the problems a team is facing.  A record like this is built brick by brick and moment by moment in the course of a play.

Even with VanVleet draining three after three deep into the third quarter, the Orlando Magic were still in the game. It was a 77-74 Magic lead midway through the third quarter after Cole Anthony had a one-handed putback dunk.

At that point, the team was taking every punch and punching back. Their offense had some hiccups but kept everything moving and had the scoring and shooting to keep pace. VanVleet was a danger, but he was not pulling the team away. There was still time to cool him off.

Something was going to give.

Of course, he did not cool off. After that Anthony putback, the Magic’s offense went on ice. They gave up a 20-3 run sparked at first with a Fred VanVleet 3-pointer and then another by Aron Baynes and then another by Chris Boucher and finally VanVleet again.

The Raptors made five straight 3-pointers to firmly take control of the game.

The Magic were visibly frustrated again as turnovers overtook the team. A close game turned into a rout in a matter of minutes and Orlando was not able to recover.

Again, that decisive run and all the little moments in the game the Magic could have kept and maintained control of the game were all built by things the Magic could control. It was all built by failures at things the Magic have been good at.

The Orlando Magic are trying to find themselves again and the place they need to start is with the basics of their identity. They have to start by controlling the things they can control a whole lot better.

The Raptors made shots and made plays to break down the Magic’s defense. Orlando’s offense still has a lot of issues and inconsistencies, especially down so many key players. The Magic may not always be able to control these things even with their best efforts.

But if they want to make progress this season, they have to get back to what they do best and control the things they can control.

If the Magic are going to turn things around, the team needs to get back to its basics, preventing fouls and trips to the free-throw line, limiting turnovers and controlling transition opportunities.

None of this takes a ton of effort or anything special. This stuff is basic.

And the Magic’s lack of mastery of the basics was on display much more during the loss to the Raptors on Tuesday, leading up to VanVleet’s historic night.

"“The two things to me were his 3-point shooting was probably the biggest factor of the game,” coach Steve Clifford said after Tuesday’s loss. “And the free-throw game, which if you move the ball like we did three of the four quarters the other night and spread them out, you can get to the free throw line. And then we fouled. It was the turnover game and the free throw game. Against the teams like who are good defensively, you have to be willing to play the same the whole game. We weren’t willing to do that. We played well in stretches but not for 48 minutes.”"

Indeed, the Magic did none of the things that are usually keys to the team’s success consistently enough throughout the course of the game.

The turnover and transition problem

This Orlando Magic team has been a low-turnover team under Steve Clifford, ranking fourth in the league with a 12.9-percent turnover rate last year and sixth in 2019 with a 13.3-percent turnover rate.

This year, the Magic’s turnovers have ballooned to 13.8-percent, placing the team seventh. Worse still, the team’s defense has not been able to soften that blow. Orlando is giving up 17.7 points off turnovers, 20th in the league. The Magic ranked second in the league last year in that category (14.3 points off turnovers per game) and third in 2019 (14.7 points off turnovers per game).

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Against the Raptors, the Magic turned the ball over 17 times for a turnover rate of 17.0-percent. That led to 36 points Raptors points. Just like in Sunday’s loss, the Raptors made the Magic pay for every mistake, swiping the ball every time any big put it on the floor and crowding any drivers to make passes back to the perimeter difficult.

Building off that, the Raptors were able to turn that into transition opportunities. They scored 29 fast-break points on 11-for-17 shooting. Toronto was able to beat the team in transition.

As Clifford has put it, getting back in transition and preventing fast breaks is about effort as much as it is organization. The team has not been able to get this key part of their identity under control.

This season, Orlando is giving up 13.9 fast-break points per game, 24th in the league. But the last two years, they were among the stingiest defenses in transition, giving up 11.9 per game last year (fourth in the league) and 12.7 per game in 2019 (ninth in the league).

It is here the Magic have fallen off the most defensively. Something they have been among the very best teams in the league has suddenly become a huge weakness.

Part of this problem comes from the team’s poor offensive movement and disorganization. Everything springs from somewhere. And the inexact nature of the Magic’s offensive execution has only increased several of these issues.

"“We kind of get stagnant offensively,” Nikola Vucevic said after Tuesday’s loss. “We don’t think to make the cut or set the screen for the next guy to get something going. It’s something that obviously hurts us. We are going to get good looks and we are going to make them. When we don’t do that, it is going to become very difficult.”"

Orlando can really only blame itself for these kinds of errors. And it compounds problems elsewhere too.

The free throw problem

The Toronto Raptors shot 25 free throw attempts, making 23, as they set a physical tone throughout the game. Orlando committed 22 fouls for the game. But the Raptors were on the attack. They were in the free throw bonus just five minutes into the third quarter and used that to help them press the Magic and build their decisive run.

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This fouling has been a recurring issue throughout the season.

The Magic commit the third-fewest fouls per game in the league (17.9 per game). Yet, opponents shoot 20.0 free throw attempts per game against them (sevent in the league) and post a 22.7-percent free throw rate, also seventh in the league.

That may not seem like much, but for a team with such a small margin for error those difference matter. Especially considering last year the Magic had the fifth-best free throw rate at a similary 22.8-percent.

Regardless of the big-picture numbers, it has felt the Magic have given up fouls and free throws in decisive moments — think about the losses to the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers that were decided late at the foul line.

It points to a larger lack of discipline on the defensive end. But more frustratingly, these are all things the Magic know they can control.

They know these are the things that can form the base of their success. Something they know they can do even with all the injuries they have faced.

Orlando played well enough Tuesday to win the game. But it was its mistakes that cost them. Just as these mistakes have cost the Magic throughout the season.

Next. 5 questions the Orlando Magic face in the second quarter of 2021. dark

To get back on track, the Magic need to control these self-inflicted wounds and re-establish their base.