Orlando Magic return from road trip with more questions than progress

The Orlando Magic returned home from a road trip with some more questions about how to progress with so many injuries. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic returned home from a road trip with some more questions about how to progress with so many injuries. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports /

90. 38. 109. 66. Final

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford knows this is his team right now and that he is asking a lot.

He knows that everyone is stretched thin and they are being put in uncomfortable roles and situations. He knows the team is just trying to keep its head above water as they find their way at this stage of the season.

The Orlando Magic had only eight healthy players available for their 109-90 loss to the Phoenix Suns after James Ennis last Friday’s game with a strained groin. The team started Terrence Ross for the first time since Nov. 2017 and had only Chuma Okeke, Mohamed Bamba and Khem Birch available off the bench.

It is simply hard to play this way. It is nearly impossible to ask the team to function at an extremely high level without so many key players.

And that is what played out throughout the course of the team’s recent four-game road trip. This team was playing well but running on fumes. Even seasoned veterans have never seen a team dealing with this many injuries and consistently playing with eight or nine players total.

Ross said after the game his thoughts were all over the place as he reflected on this crazy stretch. It was hard to say a whole lot about where the team is at. Everyone is having to do a lot more.

"“We played better defense,” Ross said after Sunday’s loss. “We’re playing better. But we’re not winning. I don’t know. It’s a weird spot to be in right now.”"

West Coast road trips are supposed to be a time where teams have to band together and find their way to play. Even though the difficulties of playing on the road and traveling through time zones for an extended period of times, teams find their resolve and what they can rely on at their season’s most challenging moments.

The Orlando Magic are returning home from a road trip injured and beaten. But the team is hoping they have made some progress so they can be ready when they are healthy again.

Oftentimes those last road games are a test of focus and resolve. The best teams may come home with an even record on the trip, but they find themselves and what they need to succeed.

This Magic team may have found some of that on this trip, but it is also hard to tell exactly what they found too. Everything they did or might have accomplished was too clouded by the injuries that have befallen the team.

The Magic did not start the trip so undermanned. But it quickly changed.

Al-Farouq Aminu returned and exited in the opening game Tuesday against the Portland Trail Blazers with hamstring tightness in his first game in four months. Cole Anthony left that game with a strained shoulder, leaving the team with just one point guard on the roster.

That would be short-lived too. Frank Mason would leave in the first quarter Thursday against the Golden State Warriors leaving the team without a point guard for the remainder of the game and just eight healthy players.

The fact the Magic led by five midway through the fourth quarter felt like a minor miracle.

It was a relief to get Michael Carter-Williams back for the first time in five weeks in Friday’s win over the Sacramento Kings. But that game also came at a cost with Ennis leaving with a strained groin as well.

That is how a team ends up with eight players. And there is no word yet when any of the Magic’s four “questionable” players will be back. As Steve Clifford said after Sunday’s game, among Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Fournier, James Ennis and Frank Mason, it is unclear when any of them might be better.

The team can only be hopeful that they will get reinforcements soon. The Magic just need healthy bodies again to function or compete consistently again.

"“I think the most challenging aspect is chemistry,” Birch said after Sunday’s game. “Some guys haven’t played that position in practice. And also not knowing the position has been the most difficult part so far.”"

At this point, there just is not enough time to get everyone settled and figure out roles. This team is being patched together with duct tape.

But the Magic still feel like they have made some progress and the road trip, even with a 1-3 record was something resembling success.

For the road trip, the Magic posted a 109.8 defensive rating during the road trip. That is not anything to write home about but is a vast improvement from the team’s 112.3 defensive rating for the season.

That small improvement, especially without so many key players and everyone playing out of position was something positive. If a bit harder to see through the frustration of losing.

"“For sure in these four games, particularly in terms of having a way to play that will give us a chance to be more consistent, except for early in the year where we had everybody, these are the best four games that we’ve played,” Clifford said after Sunday’s game. “Good teams, on the road. Even [Sunday], we made the run to put their starters back in. The first three games, we put ourselves in position to win.”"

There is at least that positive sign. And the defensive numbers are trending in the right direction.

Orlando felt like it competed in all four of the games despite being so undermanned. But being competitive is not winning and that pain still stuck with the team.

But being so undermanned had the effect of hiding the progress the Magic were making. And the Magic being undermanned also meant that one bad quarter was enough to bury the team.

A slow start in Portland had the Magic down big early and climbing uphill, even if that game never became a complete blowout. Orlando led for much of the game against Golden State only to see a 16-0 run in the fourth quarter ended the chances at a win.

The same happened Sunday. The Magic struggled to get their footing early and fell behind early. But never let the game get too far away. Even if they never threatened.

This is going to be the reality for this team while they are still so hurt. Their margin for error will be too small and the chance for victory will be slimmer. Progress will be slow and hidden.

Just as it was throughout the road trip.

"“I think we’re playing better,” Clifford said after Sunday’s game. “I think we have a better idea of what we have to do to play more consistently. There are definitely things to like about how we played that we can build on.”"

Whether that will translate to wins when the team returns home or gets healthy again will be another story of course. The Magic felt like they made progress from this road trip. But how much can a team really learn about itself with just eight or nine healthy players?

Injuries have taken out Orlando Magic. dark. Next

This is the central problem for this roster to survive right now.