Orlando Magic still seeking to reduce ‘zero’ lineups

The Orlando Magic are still figuring out how to mix and match lineups to prevent any fall in momentum. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic are still figuring out how to mix and match lineups to prevent any fall in momentum. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports /

64. Final. 103. 38. 110

The Orlando Magic were rolling.

A rough first half filled with offensive rebounds, second-chance points and turnovers gave way to a third quarter of beautiful ball movement and passing, precision and energy.

The Magic flipped a 10-point deficit to trail by one at the end of the second quarter, and then zoomed ahead for a seven-point lead midway through the third quarter.

They were active with Franz Wagner and Chuma Okeke cutting off driving lanes and the Magic cleaning the glass. They kicked it ahead to Jalen Suggs who dashed to the rim or unleashed him defensively as he hounded anyone that happened to be in front of him.

This looked like a budding young team maturing and closing out a game in the midst of a difficult start to the season that had them playing their fifth game in seven days and a back-to-back, to boot.

No one would use that as an excuse for what happened next.

The team’s energy suddenly dropped. The Pistons closed the quarter outscoring the Magic 27-11.

With a lineup of R.J. Hampton, Gary Harris, Terrence Ross, Chuma Okeke and Moritz Wagner for the final 4:54 of the third quarter, Detroit outscored Orlando 19-6, making seven of eight shots and three 3-pointers.

That is how the Magic flipped what looked like a spirited win and turned it into a 110-103 thud of a loss to the Pistons in the fourth quarter at Little Caesars Arena on Saturday.

The Orlando Magic are struggling to piece together a rotation that can maintain its energy for 48 minutes. Orlando is losing games in these “zero” minutes.

Orlando, climbing uphill in the fifth game in seven nights, fell behind by as much as 18 in the fourth quarter as Detroit continued to stay hot, using its veterans to ensure the team picked up its first win.

The Magic lost momentum and lost energy and never got it back.

"“Once players have confidence, it’s really tough to get the momentum back and in your favor,” Wagner said after Saturday’s loss. “The best way to do that is to play solid, take care of the ball and force difficult shots on defense. You have to give them credit. I think we threw them a little bit off with our zone, but they did a good job finding open shooters and also some open dunks at the rim. It’s really difficult to get the momentum back.”"

Nights like this happen. And while nobody on the team wanted to use the fatigue of the schedule as an excuse, coach Jamahl Mosley said fatigue certainly played a factor in the team’s energy and attention to detail.

Orlando did a lot of things well enough to win and certainly continued to fight to the end, even as Mosley put in an all-deep bench lineup for the final 3:20 of a 15-point game.

Every team will have a moment where a lineup just does not work. These are NBA teams and they are going to zoom past them.

Still, these “zero” lineups are killer for a team trying to develop and trying to win. And they happen too frequently to ignore. Even if coach Mosley gets some leeway to figure out this mismatched, young and still-injured roster.

Mosley is still getting a feel for his team and the right combinations it needs to use.

The Magic have used 85 different lineup combinations in seven games this season — only 24 of those have played in more than one game and only 14 have played more than six minutes together so far this season.

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Through seven games last year (notably the game Markelle Fultz went down with his injury), the Magic had used only 52 lineups with nine playing 14 or more minutes to that point. The Magic had a much better understanding of their players and what rotation and playing groups would work for them.

It still feels like Mosley is figuring out how to break his lineup and which starters to insert where to keep the team competitive and balanced. A lot is going into these lineup considerations as the Magic settle into the season.

"“Some of it is different rotations,” Mosley said after Saturday’s loss. “We have different guys coming back. Walking into back-to-backs there are going to be different times that you play different minutes with different people. I think being cautious and conscious of that as games come about, that’s what I’m looking at as well. Just seeing which lineups are best together but also looking at the schedule and how we’re walking into some of these games.”"

There are reasons why Orlando broke the lineup and the rotation the way it did. And Mosley should get some credit for going to different groups and continuing to search rather than insisting on using a group that consistently is not working.

This Magic team itself is still depleted having just gotten Okeke back from a bone bruise in his right hip. Inevitably, the Magic are going to play some uncomfortable-looking lineups. And Mosley said the nature of back-to-backs and the schedule are going to limit how much he wants to use players.

Still, the Magic’s rotation should try to avoid certain groups and should hold some basic principles in its construction, where possible.

The evidence is pretty damning what happens with lineups that play without both Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs on the floor. The team has scored just 28 points in 23 minutes with both guards off the floor. They have shot only 11 for 40 (27.5-percent) in that time. Orlando has given up 70 points and 24-for-44 shooting (54.5-percent) in that same time.

Without both Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter on the floor, the Magic are scoring 143 points in 75 minutes but giving up 192 points in that same timespan. The team has had some success thanks to a little bit more positional flexibility at the 4 and 5.

Lineups without all four of those players have 20 points and 9-for-31 shooting (29.0-percent) in 18 minutes this season. They have given up 50 points and 17-for-34 shooting (50.0 percent).

Of course, playing without four starters will lead to generally negative results. That makes logical sense. And most of those minutes would happen in garbage time.

But it should also be pointed out that the most-used lineup without those four were 10 minutes two separate groups played Saturday night — a six-minute stretch in the second quarter that featured Franz Wagner at center alongside Chuma Okeke, R.J. Hampton, Terrence Ross and Gary Harris and that four-minute stretch that flipped the game in the third quarter. Both lineups had a net rating in that small sample greater than -40.0.

Mosley is still shaking out his final rotation very clearly. But he has to do a better job avoiding these “zero” lineups.

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It is hard to pinpoint exactly what the cause is for whatever difficulties the Magic are continually facing this season. It is more than just a starter/bench thing — although it is. It is more than just not having certain key players on the floor for support — although it is.

Some of it Saturday might well just have been the fatigue of a tough schedule and a pre-determined shift to the rotation Mosley felt was needed to get through the season.

"“I think a big portion of that was we ran out of steam,” Mosley said after Saturday’s loss. “We used all the momentum to fight back and we get going and we used a lot of that energy. I think we’ll have to look at the film and see where things could have been done differently. Our guys continue to fight.”"

There is no one reason. But the Magic keep running into this roadblock no matter the cause or reason where they have a lineup out there that just cannot produce and keep the team in the game. And that as much as anything is why they sit at 1-6.

Mo Bamba starting strong with newfound opportunity. dark. Next

And solving this problem is the biggest challenge Mosley is facing early in his season.