Orlando Magic are betraying their standard as they fall this season

The Orlando Magic's defense has completely fallen apart as they are slowly losing their season. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic's defense has completely fallen apart as they are slowly losing their season. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

125. 112. 38. Final. 115

Go back to December and the early part of the season.

This was obviously a very different team then. Markelle Fultz was healthy and playing the best basketball of his career. The team felt comfortable with so many things on the floor having built continuity over years to break through to the playoffs. The Orlando Magic likely saw a window in this strange pandemic season to beat other teams to the punch with this preparation built in them.

That got tested early on in the season though. The Washington Wizards jumped out to a 17-point lead to start the fourth quarter. The team looked lost offensively and struggled to corral that difficult Wizards offense — playing without Russell Westbrook in this second game of a back-to-back.

Everything was stacked against the Magic. They were on the road, on a back-to-back (granted against the same team), facing a huge deficit and at the beginning of a long season (although they had no clue how long that season would be).

The team showed its resolve and its focus. Fultz helped spearhead a comeback that felt like it would reverberate. The Magic stunned the Wizards with a 43-19 fourth quarter. Markelle Fultz scored 10 points in the final quarter after Terrence Ross, Michael Carter-Williams and the bench scored 19 points to kick things off.

The Magic were then 3-0. They were riding high and felt like they could take on the world. This was a defining win for their early season. A showing of their resolve to win and their ability to do so.

At the midpoint of the season, that game now stands as a hope for what things could have been and might be next year. Injuries defined the first half of the season.

Fultz would tear his ACL just five games later, sending the Magic into a nosedive down the standings and putting everything in question.

It stands in stark contrast to the feeling after Wednesday’s 115-112 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

The high hopes for the Orlando Magic season are all but snuffed out and the team is struggling to hold true to its identity after taking an embarrassing home defeat.

Orlando had a 19-point lead at halftime, expanded it back out to 18 in the third quarter and a 15-point lead with six minutes left. Yet, the team was left scrambling in the late stages of the game. The Hawks made nine 3-pointers in the fourth quarter alone. By the time the game came down to an iffy foul call by Michael Carter-Williams on Trae Young, it was far too late.

The game never should have gotten to this point. Even an injury-depleted team needs to find a way to win.

All that resolve and confidence the team had early in the year is completely gone. What comes next now? And how do the Magic get back to being the Magic?

"“We had some lapses in the second half,” Carter-Williams said after Wednesday’s game. “Definitely made some mistakes that we can control. We weren’t in our rotations and we didn’t get a lot of threes in the fourth quarter.”"

Steve Clifford said the team set the tone for their fourth quarter with poor communication on defense and specifically on pick and rolls. The Hawks he said ran four pick and rolls right out of the gate and the Magic failed to cover them.

The frustrating part is that regardless of injuries, the Magic know defense has to be their backbone. These are not young players making mistakes. These are veterans letting the team down. A team with Michael Carter-Williams, Al-Farouq Aminu, Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic should not be giving up 40-point fourth quarters and losing such large leads.

Even if the team’s overall outlook is failing — the Magic are now four games out of the final play-in spot — this is a game a team has to win. It is about doing the things that make the Magic the Magic.

Losing their backbone

The Orlando Magic are supposed to be built on their defense. Consistently, it is the defense that seems to be giving the games away. It has been an intractable problem all year.

This is supposed to be something that feels like a given every game. It is essential to the team’s identity. The players know they are not going to be able to outscore teams. If they want to win it will take a strong defensive effort. This is fundamental to who the team is.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Their success this year has come when their defense has played its best and its most consistent.

"“Obviously we’re in a difficult situation right now,” Nikola Vucevic said after Wednesday’s game. “We were hoping to finish this last stretch before the break stronger with a couple more wins. That would have definitely helped us. We’re not too far away. But our margin for error as the season goes on gets thinner and thinner. It’s going to be very difficult. Hopefully, we can catch a break with injuries first and have everybody healthy. And hopefully, like in the past years, we can improve as the season goes on. It’s going to be difficult. We’re going to keep fighting until the end.”"

The absences from injury have played a role. The Magic were playing Wednesday’s game without four of their projected starters when fully healthy. The team’s best off-the-dribble creator and most impactful defender have been out most of the year. Evan Fournier has been in and out of the line (he was out Wednesday) with back spasms. And Aaron Gordon is still working to return from a severely sprained ankle.

It is hard to win in that case. And that might be a good excuse for the big picture.

It is likely the sole reason the Magic are in line for a top pick in this year’s draft and why the playoff picture feels so dim. But it does not excuse the team giving up the ship as easily as it did in the final six minutes of Wednesday’s game.

Losses like that simply do not happen.

Future outlook

Teams can and do recover from losses like that.

The Washington Wizards struggled for a long time early in the season but have found their groove again and have started climbing the standings after the Orlando Magic disposed of them in that early-season game.

Orlando is going to have to try to do the same. But The team has to figure out who it is. The team has shown plenty of fight and resolve even with an undermanned roster this season.

But an early-season loss like that with so many new players and a mid-season loss like this are two different things.

The Magic should have their habits and their identity established already. They have dealt with injuries throughout the course of the season. These are not young players making mistakes. These are veterans and players who know how to win and play at a higher level.

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Orlando’s first half did not see the team at full strength long enough to make any major judgments. But the team showed enough that it is still missing a key element to winning.

Maybe it is not just the injuries keeping the team from consistently competing for a playoff spot and advancing up the Eastern Conference standings.

This is the kind of loss that only the worst teams suffer through. And the reality is that the Magic might be exactly what their record says they are: One of the worst teams in the league.

There is still time to turn it around, but the prospects feel dim.

"“It’s hard to judge our first part of the season because we’re so short-handed,” Nikola Vucevic said after Monday’s game. “It’s difficult to play that way. We never really had our full team to grow together and improve. Then you could really tell if we are good enough or not and what needs to change. Hopefully, we can catch a break with injuries and get our full team healthy. if we do that, hopefully, we can make a run.”"

Health would go a long way to helping the Magic make something of their season.

Perhaps, the Magic’s outlook for next season looks fine with Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac returning to a group that almost certainly will still retain Nikola Vucevic and add a top pick in this draft. It is not the end of the world that Orlando faltered this year.

But something still stinks after a loss like this. Losing habits creep in easily into franchises that struggle. And rooting them out is never easy. Nobody wants to be one of the worst teams in the league, it is not something to strive for.

Next. Orlando Magic shouldn't rely on the luck of the Lottery. dark

The Magic are headed there if they are not there already. Wednesday’s loss to the Hawks is plainly unacceptable because the team betrayed its standard.