Orlando Magic won’t ‘make things up’ as they try to improve and win

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford was not about to claim a moral victory after a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford was not about to claim a moral victory after a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /

96. 20. Final. 93. 38

We are all guilty. We have all lowered our expectations for this Orlando Magic team.

The team traded away its three best offensive players and nuked the core of the franchise. The team is charting a rebuilding path that does not have great short-term prospects.

But there we go lowering expectations again. The team has to have the chance to prove itself on the court and has to be given the chance to succeed or fail — or resigned to simply collecting lottery ping pong balls.

That is how fans think. Fans are already focused on what comes next — and indeed, the success or failure of what Jeff Weltman pulled on Thursday might depend on whether a four pops out of the hopper instead of a three on Lottery night.

That is not how the team is thinking. That is not how the foundation of a championship team is built.

If this team wants this rebuild to be successful, a certain standard has to be the norm. Moral victories or normalizing losses is how rebuilds fail — think about those early years under Rob Hennigan. The Magic have no plans to let that happen.

The Orlando Magic welcomed three new players to the roster, but despite a strong effort, the Magic were dissatisfied with their first effort realizing there is much more work to do to keep on winning.

The Orlando Magic had every excuse to accept their 96-93 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday as a minor victory. They competed, played hard and gave themselves a chance to win. The Magic ran a good play to get Otto Porter an open three and he missed it long. That kind of game-ending miss is one a team can live with in a hard-fought game.

Shots go in or shots go out. It is a make or miss league as they say.

But coach Steve Clifford rarely cares about the result of one play. That is not how coaches think. He was concerned about the buildup of plays.

His team had scored just 93 points. Despite the level of organization and the brief moments of clarity the team showed, there were simple mistakes that were completely unacceptable. There were offensive rebounds — only eight but several at critical times in the fourth quarter including a few off missed free throws — and early fouling.

The kinds of mistakes it should not take practice to correct.

"“I’m not going to come up here and make stuff up,” Clifford said after Sunday’s loss. “We played hard, we didn’t play smart. We made a ton of mistakes. It’s hard to win on the road doing that. One thing we’re going to do all the way through this is we’re not going to make stuff up. That’s what bad franchises do especially at the end of the year. We’re not doing that.”"

There were positives from several of the new players for sure.

Wendell Carter showed a lot of aptitude getting back into plays and disrupting interior passes. He had a special and deeper pick-and-roll connection with Chuma Okeke which the Magic used extensively late in the game.

R.J. Hampton scored a career-high 10 points as a battering ram into the paint with good stop-and-go potential to hit from mid-range or the outside.

The team played hard and put itself in a position to win. But there was still a lot to be desired.

The Lakers grabbed five of their eight offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter, including at least one off a missed free throw. They took 12 of their 23 free throw attempts in the final quarter.

As Clifford would describe it, these were high school-level mistakes that make it impossible to win a game on the road. These are not mere disorganization errors that come from a new team learning to play together.

Even scoring just 93 points left a deep frustration in the team. The Magic had their chance to win and they gave the game away even if the Lakers kept leaving the door open for them to take it.

"“It was just the little things,” Wendell Carter said after Sunday’s game. “I feel like even though our execution wasn’t the best. We gave a great effort, we just have to give a little bit more.”"

Clifford has been best as a coach building a foundation. His job with the Charlotte Hornets and Orlando magic has been to help young teams establish winning habits and the basics it will take to compete and get better.

With the Magic starting from the ground floor again, this will become even more important. Even if the team might struggle to pick up wins, they still want to hold themselves accountable to a basic standard. The Magic want to still build winning habits and a basic standard.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

There is still a feeling-out process going on. Everyone recognizes it. That could explain some of the struggles — although certainly not all of them.

Carter said he needed to be more aggressive offensively. But even Clifford seemed to be careful with his new players, playing each of them off the bench and limiting their minutes to some extent.

Porter played the most minutes but that is probably because he is a veteran and Clifford has a better feel for his game. It was telling that it was Porter and Carter who finished the game though. Clifford is still establishing trust that they will be in the right spots and execute well enough to win.

Porter was the one who took the potential game-tying shot.

Clifford was also forced to experiment in a way that he was uncomfortable. With Michael Carter-Williams leaving the game in the first half, Steve Clifford had to play R.J. Hampton some at point guard far before he was ready. The inexperience showed as the team struggled in those minutes.

Carter probably summed up this integration best: It is one thing to watch tape and another to play with new players. These players are still learning each other.

Orlando probably played decent for the circumstances. But that is not going to be enough. Not with the kind of mistakes the team made down the stretch. The expectation is that Orlando will develop mental toughness.

Most importantly, all that effort and energy mean nothing if the team does not get a few wins for those efforts. If these players still say they are about winning, it is a mindset and a habit as much as it is an ability.

The Magic are not changing their standard and there is still a desire to win within the roster. They are still optimistic everything will click after this first game.

"“The feeling in the locker room was room for improvement,” Hampton said after Sunday’s game. “I feel all the guys competed and played super hard. We came up short because of little mistakes that are fixable. The energy in the locker room was high after the game. We see our potential and what we can do. The moral of the team is in high spirits to finish this road trip the right way.”"

The Magic showed some of that potential for sure. The game was not at all negative in that way.

But the team will only be able to grow if it makes that progress and grows. The mistakes the Magic made that were self-inflicted have to decrease with each occurrence. The Magic have to learn these lessons.

And young teams especially have to take these lessons to heart.

Next. It's a fresh start for Orlando Magic's newcomers. dark

Ultimately, the only measure that matters is winning. And despite everything, the Magic are not letting go of that standard.