Orlando Magic are navigating the impossible right now

Nikola Vucevic seemingly carried the entire offense for the Orlando Magic as they fell short against the Portland Trail Blazers. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic seemingly carried the entire offense for the Orlando Magic as they fell short against the Portland Trail Blazers. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

34. Final. 97. 38. 106

It was easy to sense the exhaustion and mental fatigue on Nikola Vucevic’s face. He went up for a rebound to try to help his team stay in this road game against the Portland Trail Blazers and tipped the ball on his first jump but could not corral it.

The host of bodies in front of him led to some incidental contact and Vucevic went to the ground. He was holding either his wrist or his midsection, but he got up and got back into the play.

Everyone associated with the Orlando Magic certainly held their breath in that moment. Losing Vucevic for any length of time would have surely put any nascent hopes of staying in the playoff race — let alone competing on a nightly basis — to bed for the season.

Maybe the Magic have already reached that breaking point. Staying away from it has not been from a lack of effort. But this feels like a long, uphill climb.

Vucevic played the entire second half with the Magic under increasing pressure to find a win somewhere and they rode their potential All-Star center as much as they could. The exhaustion on his face and in his shots were obvious as the Magic fell short 106-97 at Moda Center on Tuesday.

But the Magic had nowhere else to go.

"“We’re going to him every time,” coach Steve Clifford said after Tuesday’s game. “They were doubling him. I thought he was great. It’s very difficult.”"

Vucevic finished with 27 points and 15 rebounds, making 10 of his 21 shots. Clifford said the team was trying to play through him and take advantage of the Blazers’ lack of size. His disappointment for the game came when the team broke its plays and did not get him the ball to initiate the offense.

This was their best way to win for this game. Again, it was not for a lack of trying.

Injuries continued to ravage the Orlando Magic as they again had to ask players to do far too much to win consistently. The team is climbing uphill in an impossible situation.

But that monumental effort was only required because Cole Anthony left the game in the second quarter with a right shoulder strain. That, along with Al-Farouq Aminu leaving the game after he reported some hamstring tightness following his first playing stint in 14 months, left the Magic with just nine players available.

The only point guard available was Frank Mason, who joined the team a week ago. They are down four of the five starters (with Evan Fournier missing Tuesday’s game with back spasms) they would hope to play when their roster is at full health.

This is not anything anyone on the team could have imagined. The tired “next man up” mentality that players have to have as they navigate the injuries and the long marathon of a season has its limits.

There is only so much adversity a team can take before it breaks.

"“We’re professionals and it’s out job to bring it every night,” Vucevic said after Tuesday’s game. “We do what love for a living. It’s not easy. It’s frustrating and tough mentally at times to have guys keep getting injured and be out. You hav eot keep on doing your job. It’s an opportunity for someobody else to get minutes and play.”"

Fighting to the end

The Orlando Magic are certainly not a team in the business of moral victories. The team has too many veterans to accept anything short of wins and success. The team knows what it takes to win, even on a small scale, in this league. That has seemingly only added to the frustrations.

Yet, there they were fighting and clawing just to get this one win.

The Portland Trail Blazers jumped the Orlando Magic fairly early to build a 15-point lead in the first quarter. Orlando’s struggles to shoot continued to kill the team as even simple makeable shots did not fall.

The Magic were fortunate the Trail Blazers were missing from beyond the arc. But still the lead ballooned to 17 at one point.

Orlando had plenty of fight though. A flurry from Terrence Ross brought deficit to seven at the half. And the Magic stayed within arm’s length for the rest of the game.

The team rode Nikola Vucevic as far as it could in the second half, setting him up for post-ups on nearly every possession. When the team was not doing that, it was setting up curls to try to spring Ross free. These became the team’s only two options.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Somehow, through some sheer force of will, the Magic kept the Blazers from running away with the game. But it was still nowhere near enough.

Orlando would always miss the big shot it would need to really make Portland sweat and then Damian Lillard or Carmelo Anthony would hit a shot to keep the team at bay.

"“We competed hard,” Steve Clifford said after Tuesday’s game. “We had good intent and good purpose of play and our defense was good against a terrific offensive team. There were definitely things we can build on.”"

An impossible situatioon

No one would argue with this team’s fight and effort for the most part. They have just been continually put in an impossible situation.

That is how the team’s best player at the team’s deepest position — the only position group that has not had injuries touch it — ends up playing the entire game. And how that decision, at least in the context of trying to win the game, somehow makes sense.

"“We have prideful guys,” coach Steve Clifford said after Tuesday’s game. “They know they can turn this around when we get everybody back. They know it is important when we are shorthanded to win a few so we don’t get too far behind until we do get guys back. Effort hasn’t been our problem. I’m not worried about the effort.”"

It is hard to ask this team to do more. Players that were not meant to have such large offensive roles, create shots for others or even just organize the team into basic offensive and defensive sets are getting stretched to their limits.

There is no one that is at fault for any of this. The team just was not meant to function this way.

There is no way management could have planned for losing more than 120 games to injury just 25 games into the season. There was no way for a coach to formulate a gameplan and bring everyone up to speed with so many absences and so little time for training camp and general preparation in the course of the season. There was no way for players to fit into new and expanding roles as the team’s identity seemingly had to do a 180.

Yes, they can all be better. This season has exposed the weaknesses of the Magic’s rebuilding plan and roster decisions, of Clifford’s need for structure and avoidance of improvisation or coaching on some form of feel and of the players’ shortcomings as creators and impactors on the game.

But they still have to find a way.

"“Control what you can control, your effort, the intensity, the opportunities that you are given,” Al-Farouq Aminu said after Tuesday’s game. “Sometimes stars are made when someboody gets injured. You want to approach it in the right way. I think everybody is doing that. We’re all working. Those things are going to carry over for this year and your whole life. At the end of the day, it’s going to make us stronger as a team.”"

But nothing was meant to stretch this far. Everyone is dealing with impossible circumstances — and that does not even get into the COVID protocols that dominate everything off the court.

Next. Orlando Magic must still grow to make Lottery trip temporary. dark

This has become too much for the team to bear. Yet somehow they have to find a way through it.