Chuma Okeke remembers what his coach told him at halftime.
The Orlando Magic were up four against an undermanned Toronto Raptors team and had done a good job with the top thing on their board — limiting their turnovers with just five leading to six points. But in previous meetings this is always what had undone the Magic against the Raptors.
Chuma Okeke said coach Steve Clifford reminded him not to turn the ball over and to continue limiting turnovers.
In true rookie fashion, what did Okeke do just 2.5 minutes into the third quarter? He turned the ball over leading directly to a Khem Birch dunk. Okeke also had a shot blocked on the Magic’s first possession that Okeke made up for with a steal and breakaway dunk.
The good with the bad for the rookie. Another learning lesson for a young player after a stellar first half.
But Okeke’s turnover early in the third quarter was an omen for things to come. The Raptors quickly were able to turn a tight game into a runaway thanks to six 3-pointers and 20 points from Paul Watson. the Magic went without a field goal for nearly four minutes. But by then, a tie game had turned into a 15-point deficit.
Things in the NBA can change that quickly. And any slip in attention to detail can have these wide-ranging effects.
The Orlando Magic are focused on their development and growth for the rest of this season. That means learning from missteps and trying to bring the same energy to each game.
This is what the young Magic team is learning. How to play with the right focus and intensity for a full 48 minutes.
“Everything is going to be set up by our intent and our basic energy,” Clifford said after Friday’s loss. “Every team plays pretty hard in the NBA. Tonight in that second half, we had a different level of energy. Definitely a different level of concentration. We blew a lot of coverages defensively that we did pretty well in the first half and did well the other night. Hopefully, that is a lesson learned and we can do better on Sunday.”
Orlando was competitive with Toronto — and perhaps even the better team — except for this four- or five-minute stretch. That stretch was devastating enough to result in a loss. The momentary lapse in concentration and energy enough to derail the chances at a win.
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Okeke said the team’s intensity level was not where it was in the first half. The team missed on some defensive rotations.
Clifford said the Raptors turned up their defense in the third quarter. Their ball pressure and their ability to be physical with cutters took the Magic out of rhythm.
The Magic shot better in the second half but made only 1 of 10 3-pointers. The team just seemed a bit off after a high-energy and high-spirited first half.
The Raptors hit 60-percent of their shots and 9 of 18 3-pointers after struggling from deep in the first half. Sometimes a game is really as simple as one team made shots and the other did not.
The Magic’s defense got loose as they tried to reel the Raptors back in. It was a struggle to get things back right. Especially with shots not falling.
Clifford said the team did not have the same energy level in the second half, playing what he termed a “tired second half.” That is not an excuse, but a reality that a young team is trying to learn how to play in the league.
“As a team, I feel like something we can be better when we are not making shots on the offensive end not letting us affect us defensively,” Wendell Carter said after Friday’s game. “As a team, especially a young team, I struggle with that to this day. It’s hard. We have to understand the offense will come around but our defense has to be solid for the whole 48.”
That is the larger point the Magic are trying to make in these final 16 games of the season. This personal growth and team growth from the team as a whole is a learning experience for so many young players.
The Magic are trying to learn the consistency of focus and intensity necessary to win regularly in the league. It is not an easy thing to do. It is the biggest thing for young players to learn how to do.
Clifford has been trying to make sure he ushers his team through this with a solid mix of veterans and young players on the floor. He does not believe in a simple “let them play” philosophy. They need some organization, purpose and intention to grow.
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As Clifford put it, “If you practice correctly, you get better. If you practice poorly, you’re exercising.” The goal for his team is to get better. And for a young team like the Magic, this chance to evaluate the roster and see where players can get better is important.
The same goal for the team to get better as the season progresses still remains.
“You have to be evaluating as you are watching film and everything else,” Clifford said after Friday’s game. “Some of it is, a big part of this game is who you are on the floor with. Younger guys playing bigger minutes than they have before and sometimes they are out there with other young guys who haven’t played as big a role too. I think there is a fine line there. The biggest thing is 16 games, or hopefully, way before that, we are playing at a higher, more purposeful level more consistently.”
That evaluation is still the more careful and complex part of the Magic’s rebuild. Several players are playing featured roles for the first time in their careers. All while learning the league for the first time.
The goal is to see the team get better. It may not look great, and may be a moral victory the Magic are not willing to accept, but Friday’s game was certainly a better showing than the blowout losses they suffered a week ago.
Orlando played with enough purpose and enough intention to gain some evaluation and some learning experiences. It is hard to learn anything when the game is over in the first quarter or fairly early.
The Magic can point to how well they played in the first half and the edge they played with in the fourth quarter and contrast that to how things let up in the third quarter.
Players like Okeke and Carter, who dominated the game in the first half, can look at how they played then and how much they struggled in the second half as a source to learn and grow. They are getting all the defense’s attention now.
“I feel like they are locking in on me being that they are closing out to me harder being that I’ve been making my shots,” Okeke said after Friday’s game. “Just keying in on me on defense somewhat. I feel like I’ve been doing OK with it. Some nights I go out there and make my shots, some nights I don’t. I’ve just got to keep getting better.”
That is still the goal — to get better.
The Magic were not able to build on the win with another win Friday. They lost their focus for a moment as they are still adjusting to this new reality even three weeks after the trade.
Their focus and attention to detail will be how their success is ultimately measured. And very clearly, getting that energy up for 48 minutes remains a challenge for this young team.