Orlando Magic missing the details needed to progress and grow

The Orlando Magic are defending hard, but missing many of the details they will need to win. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic are defending hard, but missing many of the details they will need to win. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /

119. 73. Final. 109. 38

The Orlando Magic have proven to themselves and to the league they will remain a tough out for the rest of the year.

No one should be overlooking the Magic. And those who try to beat them with a lax effort are likely to get burned.

The Denver Nuggets saw that in falling behind by 18 points at halftime amid a barrage of 3-pointers and turnovers the Orlando Magic easily converted.

The team is not good enough to completely hold off the best teams in the league when they dial back up and match their effort. But that can still give the team the chance to win — just ask the LA Clippers what happens when you relax on the Orlando Magic.

Down to just eight healthy players — two of whom (Mohamed Bamba and James Ennis) were dealing with a stomach illness going through the team and a third (Chasson Randle) dealing with a sore hamstring — the Magic were always going to struggle to get to the finish line even with their best effort.

Effort is truly only half the battle. And while fatigue certainly played a factor at the end of the game as 3-pointers fell short and the team simply could not keep up with the pace the Nuggets were scoring at, it was not quite the deciding factor.

The Orlando Magic have shown they will play with effort to compete and give themselves a chance to win, even facing insane circumstances. But to get over the hump and win consistently will take a dive into the details this group has shown inconsistently.

The team has little to be ashamed of on that front. Every time it feels like the Magic should have an excuse to fold or quit on a game because of their lack of depth, they seem capable of rising to the occasion. Orlando is still fighting and that is admirable.

But it is not enough. That alone will not help the Magic pick up wins or develop into the team they still believe they can be — even if no one else does.

Improvement and progression do not really happen in a vacuum. It is work and focus that gets there with effort. And even with some positive results, coach Steve Clifford is not seeing progress in the part of the game that really matters, especially for young players: the details of their gameplan that are necessary to win.

"“It doesn’t matter how old you are, you should be able to come into this league if you want to play in an NBA game, you get enough reps, the stuff that we screwed up on tonight, we went over today,” Clifford said in a brief press conference after the game. “A serious player, a good player, I’ve been around young players, [J.J.] Redick did it, Luther Head in Houston did it. Guys got to lock in and know what we’re doing and then they’ve got to execute it. It doesn’t matter how old you are and that was the difference in the halves tonight.”"

There were undoubtedly good things the Magic did in building an 18-point lead at the half. There were undoubtedly good things the Magic did as they held on and tried to withstand the Nuggets’ suddenly energetic run to open the third quarter that erased their lead fairly quickly.

There were undoubtedly good things the Magic did in spite of the insane conditions they had to play under. It was clear that the Magic lost grip of the game late simply because of exhaustion.

Players were visibly tired. Their play suggested it too with shots falling short and players not able to move off the ball. Awareness defensively also fell off dramatically as the Nuggets made a series of threes to turn the game into a virtual rout and build a 10-point lead of their own late for a 119-109 win.

Denver just had to ratchet up its intensity and bide its time to win the game. Clifford noted specifically how the Nuggets brought a new energy to the game from the start of the second half and the Magic did not respond.

But the team does not want to use that as an excuse. There were still sets and plays the Magic blew offensive and rotations the team did not make defensively that cost them this game. And, perhaps hidden by the team’s intense effort, this has been something ongoing for the team.

"“It came down to the little plays, executing in crunch time, knowing where we are supposed to be and letting them get open threes in the end or Jamal,” R.J. Hampton said after Sunday’s game. “Overall not locking in those last three or four minutes. . . . We’ve just got to be ready for it. Every team goes through these challenges. One of ours is not having that practice court time and getting to mesh and learn the plays all the way together. We’ve got to pick it up and do it on the fly if we want to win basketball games.”"

There were little hints of the problems throughout the game.

Nikola Jokic made a living with 16 assists, making many of them on piercing backdoor cuts to Aaron Gordon, using him in a way the Magic never could with their poor spacing. Throughout the game, the Magic were trying hard to double team Jokic in the, but would often take themselves out of position guarding those 3-point shooters.

The team had a lot of general miscommunication on key players that allowed them to get open. It is clear not everyone knows where they are supposed to be quite yet.

In this play, R.J. Hampton is trying to drop on the screen and calls for a switch with Chuma Okeke. But Chuma Okeke trails his man, allowing Jamal Murray to flare out for the wide-open three. This is a miscommunication the Magic need to clean up. But it has not been uncommon for the Magic to mess this up and give up open shots.

Everyone is still clearly getting on the same page. The lack of practice time has not helped, but Clifford still expects his team to get concepts and clean things up in film study and ballroom walkthroughs. This is also part of the NBA experience.

And then there is the rebounding. The bane of the team’s existence and something that should not take practice.

While the Nuggets scored only 17 points off 19 offensive rebounds in the game, that is still a big number for a team like the Magic to give up. Orlando has prided itself on its rebounding under Steve Clifford. It is a pillar of the team’s success.

The Magic have struggled in this area a ton since the trades especially — giving up a 28.3 offensive rebound rate since the trades, good for 22nd in the league after ranking first in that mark giving up just a 24.0-percent offensive rebound rate before the deadline.

Orlando was giving itself a chance to win despite these numbers and flaws working against them. But these errors leave the door open for defeat.

"“We had a chance to win it,” Terrence Ross said after Sunday’s loss. “We put ourselves in a position to win it. We botched a coule of offensive sets and defensive sets and that’s the game.“Messing up sets, guys trying to get used to things. A lack of practice definitely doesn’t help. That’s the business, man, what are you going to do?”"

These are all the details Clifford is talking about.

While some of it can be solved with a little more practice time — the team will likely hold a practice Tuesday after returning home late Sunday night/early Monday morning and the four-game homestand will be an opportunity to get more court time rather than conduct hotel ballroom walkthroughs — not all of it can.

Effort is only half the equation for the Magic. The team is playing hard and has played hard all season. Certainly since the trades, except for Saturday’s letdown against the Utah Jazz.

But the team still needs to get these details down if they want to shock everyone and make a playoff push. That is still possible and the team is hoping the impending returns of Cole Anthony and Gary Harris give the team a slight boost to climb the standings — not to mention the schedule lightening up significantly starting with this four-game homestand.

dark. Next. Orlando Magic hope pain of losing comes with a reward

Whether fans want to believe it or not, this is still the team’s goal. But to get there, the Magic have to clean up a lot and dig into the details a whole lot better.