Orlando Magic are not going to measure much progress to finish season

Mohamed Bamba has put up some impressive stat lines but the Orlando Magic center knows some of it is hollow. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Mohamed Bamba has put up some impressive stat lines but the Orlando Magic center knows some of it is hollow. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

132. 18. 96. 38. Final

The perception of these late-season games for teams at the bottom of the standings is that they are either meant for losing to help the team get more ping pong ball combinations and set up for the Lottery or they are simply opportunities to give players huge minutes and experience.

Coach Steve Clifford has made his idea of what to make the rest of the season clear from the moment the trade deadline occurred and the whole focus and expectations for the team changed. He wanted to see the team continue to grow and improve, compete and put themselves in chances to win and learn from their coaching.

It has not been an easy path. But Clifford’s urgency to get that time in during the early days after the trade deadline was clear. He was trying to lay the foundation and expectations for the young group.

But there was also a ticking clock. The chance to experience success and put that work in was going to run short. Clifford knows, as the rest of the league knows, that the final weeks of the season can be quirky.

How does the team measure progress in situations like this? How does the team create some benefit?

They just have to play hard and give themselves a chance in some meaningful minutes. Failing to do that will leave the team with meaningless minutes and blowout losses that do not teach them anything.

The Orlando Magic are still trying to measure progress and grow in the final games of the season. But that will become difficult as teams’ diverging interests create a lot of meaningless basketball.

In their 132-96 loss to the Boston Celtics, the Orlando Magic went down early. They committed eight turnovers in the first quarter. They did not look super prepared for the Celtics’ pressure defense and got blitzed early on.

Boston was up by 11 points just three minutes into the game. Orlando was able to reel what became a 17-point first-quarter deficit to five points. But then the Celtics put the game away for good with a crushing 17-4 run to end the half. Jayson Tatum had 10 of those 17 points and then carried over his shooting into the third quarter.

Orlando got no closer than 15 points the rest of the game — twice in the third quarter. This was a game the Magic were not quite prepared for.

"“The level of competition for these last six games is going way up,” coach Steve Clifford said after Wednesday’s loss. “You are going to play teams that are trying to get their team game together and get ready for the playoff. There are a lot of lessons to be learned there. You have to be able to take the things that we emphasize in the morning and implement them at night. That is part of the learning experience.”"

That is the point of these final six games — to learn lessons that can point toward the team’s improvement and jumpstart their offseason. That has always been the goal for the team since the trade deadline.

But that becomes more difficult toward the end of the season.

Teams, including the Magic, start to hold players out and seriously put themselves at a disadvantage. Playoff teams start to round into form. Everyone has different agendas as the finish line comes into focus.

Steve Clifford admitted after the team’s shootaround that it is possible that injured players Chuma Okeke (sprained ankle), James Ennis (sore right calf), Terrence Ross (back spasms) and Otto Porter (knee) could be done for the season with just one week left in the season.

The Magic are not playing with their full hand. That much is clear. But they still want to see the team be competitive.

No one player stood out above the rest, but Mohamed Bamba’s stat line stands out as one that both seems to have promise but also feels illusory.

As StatMuse pointed out, Bamba’s 19 points, 15 rebounds, three steals and four blocks was an impressive stat line that feels reminiscent of Dwight Howard in 2011. That is elite company — 2011 was Howard’s MVP-caliber season and the best season of his career.

It is good that he can do these things and his offensive production and especially his rebounding production are fantastic to see. He still accumulated those stats.

But Bamba scored only five points and missed all three of his shots in the first half. He still had seven rebounds, again a good sign of his rebounding. But the majority of his scoring and all but one block of his defensive stats came with the game already decided.

The Magic had a 127.9 defensive rating with Bamba on the floor for the game Wednesday and a 128.9 defensive rating in the first half. Only two players had a worse rating.

That is not an end-all, be-all. But this is to say take those stats with a grain of salt. When the game was in balance, and with Bamba making his third career start, Bamba really struggled to make an impact on either end.

This is a snapshot of one game, of course. Bamba had similar struggles in Monday’s win over the Detroit Pistons. But then he came through with 16 of his career-high 22 points in the fourth quarter, including a big shot to preserve the win.

Of course, the Pistons also were playing a disadvantaged lineup. So how much stock should the Magic put in those numbers?

That accurately defines the difficulty of assessing players at this stage of the season.

Cole Anthony’s late-game heroics of the last week feel important, especially since they led to wins. But he also struggled mightily through three quarters (by his own admission) before turning it on late.

R.J. Hampton’s back-to-back career games, including double-doubles in the last two games, feels like something important for a raw rookie just trying to get playing time. His energy was critical in Monday’s win and his entry in the first quarter mattered. But he had only three points and four rebounds — and a +4 plus/minus — in the first half. He did a lot of his stat accumulating in the second half.

How much does that matter? How much can the coaching staff gather and learn about their players in these moments? How valuable is experience in a game that is no longer in the balance?

These are the questions the Magic have been wrestling with since the trade deadline. They have been trying to find the best way to develop their players and build up this young roster.

The results have certainly been mixed. And the record has been poor. But the best growth has always come when the team was competitive and they could feel the weight and significance of everyone’s contributions to the final result.

"“When we made the trades, I think most people would say we would win five games,” Dwayne Bacon said after Wednesday’s game. “We just want to keep playing hard. I enjoy going out every night and playing hard with these guys. I just love to play the game, going out there and competing every night. It’s been fun here. I want to continue to do that the last six games. We’re not going to give up. We’re not going to give in.”"

The Magic have six games left to get whatever they can from these games. Undoubtedly it will be tough with how the season typically closes. These games are going to be tough to interpret.

Orlando may not be helping itself either in these stretch games. But everything that happens in a blowout will need to be taken with a grain of salt.

Next. Future outlook for Orlando Magic's acquired players. dark

Progress is extremely tough to measure right now.