2021 NBA Playoffs: Orlando Magic can learn clutch time matters from Charlotte Hornets

Gordon Hayward showed the Orlando Magic how valuable clutch play can be with a January game-winner. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Gordon Hayward showed the Orlando Magic how valuable clutch play can be with a January game-winner. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The playoffs teach teams the direction the league is headed. They teach how to stop or slow down the best teams in the league. They teach teams how to just make the field in the first place.

Every series is a lesson on how to win and what not to do.

The Orlando Magic are a team with a blank slate. They have a lot of young players and a high draft pick to begin shaping their roster. Even with all the young players they have, this team is still in the beginning stages of who they want to be and who they will be.

So Orlando should be watching the direction the league is headed. The teams in the playoffs got there for a reason — beyond star power, the most obvious need for the Magic — and they will teach key lessons for the team.

The NBA’s Play-In Tournament began Tuesday and eliminated its first team.

The Charlotte Hornets broke through to make the play-in game because of a new, young roster. The Orlando Magic could learn how their clutch play made the difference from them.

The Charlotte Hornets essentially no-showed their loss 144-117 to the Indiana Pacers. They got punched in the mouth and never got back up off the mat.

Some of it was their youth — LaMelo Ball had 14 points, but most of that in the second half — some of it was just the Pacers’ high level of execution and good luck in a single-elimination game. The Pacers looked ready to play and the Hornets did not.

Charlotte limped to the end of the season with nine losses in their last 12 games to fall out of the top-eight in the conference. A lot of that had to do with Hayward’s injury. His absence crushed the team.

Tied together

The Magic and Hornets have aligned themselves for a long time. Orlando obviously hired Charlotte’s entire staff when the team let go of Steve Clifford. But as two small-market franchises trying to find consistency while stuck against the cap, the Magic wanted to succeed where the Hornets failed.

Charlotte made the step up to playoff contention because of two things: LaMelo Ball putting in a Rookie of the Year-level season and the risky signing of Gordon Hayward. Hayward probably should have been an All-Star and he elevated the team to a new level just as Ball did.

If the Magic are trying to follow the Hornets’ path to make the playoffs quickly, they are not likely going to follow the Hayward part of that plan. Orlando does not have the cap room to make that kind of a big splash.

But undoubtedly, adding a high-level, potential Rookie of the Year-level rookie could completely change the franchise’s fortunes. That worked for Ja Morant with the Memphis Grizzlies and, to some extent, with Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans. And this year’s draft is considered closer to that 2019 draft class than the 2020 draft class.

Ball was considered by some to be the top player in that draft class. But there are at least four players in this draft class most scouts would agree ranks ahead of him.

Charlotte Hornets
Charlotte Hornets /

Charlotte Hornets

The Magic undoubtedly have an opportunity depending on how the Lottery falls to get a transformative player.

The Hornets were also fairly innovative in playing positionless basketball, at times going with three ball-handlers on the floor at the same time in LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham. They always seemed to have at least two of them on the floor together. With the group of point guards the Magic have, that is a distinct possibility of where the Magic are headed.

Value and danger in close games

But the real lesson the Hornets should teach the Magic is the value and danger of close games for a team on the margins.

The Hornets finished sixth in the league with a .581 win percentage in games that were within five points in the final five minutes. Charlotte went 18-13 in these close games, the 11th most wins in the league this season.

More impressively, the Hornets were second in the league clutch net rating at 21.9 points per 100 possessions. Charlotte was one of the best clutch teams in the league this season and it was a huge reason why they put themselves in position not just to make the Play-In Tournament but to be in the conversation for a real playoff spot without it.

Charlotte got incredible clutch play especially from Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward. The Magic experienced this firsthand when Hayward hit a game-winning layup to stave off a Magic comeback back in January. That was a game that showed the Hornets might be more serious than initially believed and the Magic had some issues that might go deeper than their injuries.

The Hornets had several big moments like this throughout the season where they won close games.

Especially for teams on the playoff fringes, winning close games matter. That is how they make up games they might not otherwise get and differentiate themselves from other teams in the middle.

Good teams will have to win close games in the playoffs. Clutch minutes and clutch stats may not matter as much in the grander scheme of things as there is a certain level of randomness that comes with those games. But the ability to go out and get a good shot late in games to eke out these wins are vital to a team making the playoffs.

Clutch performances

The Magic were OK in close games overall but played in relatively few close games. That is a product of the team being out of so many games.

The good teams and the bad teams are usually the ones who avoid close games.

Orlando though went 13-17 in the close games they played. Especially considering how poor the team’s record was, this is actually a pretty good return. The Magic stepped up in big moments.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Everyone remembers Cole Anthony’s game-winner against the Minnesota Timberwolves (and the comeback that came with it) or his big shots late in the season against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies.

You might have to reach further back to remember big plays in the win over the Golden State Warriors or Brooklyn Nets too. Or the big shots and defensive plays the Orlando Magic had to upend the LA Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans on the road.

For a year as terrible as the Magic had, there were some surprisingly clutch moments.

The numbers back up that Orlando was at least decent late in games.

The team was 11th in net rating in clutch minutes with a +1.7 net rating in 97 clutch minutes. That may not be the largest sample size, but Orlando’s offense jumped to 105.7 points per 100 possessions (not a great mark at 22nd in the league in clutch moments) and the defense tightened up to 104.0 points allowed per 100 possessions.

If Orlando wants to copy Charlotte’s success, the team obviously will have to get more consistent offensive options and players who can close games consistently. The Magic obviously will have to get to that point too where games are in the balance late.

The Magic were not involved in enough close games to really stake a claim that it would have made a difference in their record and playoff chances.

The Magic clearly put themselves in position to win games because of their defense. When that betrayed them, they struggled.

Defense is still the team’s backbone. And that is perhaps the biggest lesson the team can learn from looking at their clutch minutes.

But those close victories can only get you so far. It is a difficult balance on the knife’s edge in many ways too.

Four of the Hornets’ last five games to end the season were lost by five points or fewer. One of the reasons the Hornets fell into the Play-In Tournament was they all of a sudden could not win close games. This was not just a part of losing Hayward.

What got them into the tournament field was also what knocked them out in the end. And clearly, Charlotte still had a lot to learn about winning.

dark. Next. What comes next for the Orlando Magic

The Magic learned in 2019 just how valuable winning in the clutch can be in differentiating teams. They had the most come-from-behind, fourth-quarter wins in the league during that 22-9 to the playoffs. It will be an important part of climbing back up when the team tries to compete next year.