The Orlando Magic were struggling to keep contact on the road again in a game that seemed like it was nearly out of reach once again.
Orlando went to its best play of the evening — seeking out Robin Lopez or Wendell Carter on the left block and letting them post-up or find cutters. The Cleveland Cavaliers were doubling the post hard and daring one of the Orlando Magic’s shooters to beat them from the perimeter. Continually though, this defensive alignment left the middle of the paint open.
So Carter came crashing and cutting hard through the middle. Robin Lopez, with the deft touch he has delivered so many hook shots before, scooped the ball to Wendell Carter who rose up for a two-handed jam as Jarrett Allen tried to block and raked him across his face, knocking his glasses off his eyes.
This was the Magic at their most sublime.
Great passing and patience led to an easy basket. The young team and this young player showed his growing confidence and competitive fire. Of late, it has been Carter taking the lead for this team and beginning to blossom. A development several players said was really exciting.
But then there was the reality.
Carter, feeling the pressure and intensity of the moment and the Magic trailing by double digits and trying to get back into the game, got frustrated with the officials for the lack of a foul call. He slammed his glasses on the ground in frustration, earning a double technical foul and an ejection.
Ultimately, the Magic lost again, trailing by double-digits for most of the fourth quarter and unable to make the game competitive to give themselves a chance to win in a 105-92 loss to the Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on Saturday.
The Orlando Magic show small signs of their improvement and growth. But the big picture still looks murky as the team struggles to compete.
Now past the quarter pole of the season, it is hard to pin down who this Magic team is. And exactly what big-picture items they are growing at even if there are signs all around.
“It’s kind of hard to say when you are in the process of trying to move forward,” Lopez said after Saturday’s loss. “You just try to grow from game to game and quarter to quarter. Trying to rectify whatever your weaker facets are.”
Orlando has shown the best parts of itself in many moments — big but mostly small. The team has talent no doubt and the ability to move the ball and get in and defend. There has been clear growth and intrigue in the talent the Magic have.
But there have been precious little waves in the way of results.
Orlando has now lost 13 of its 21 games by 10 points or more. The team has played the third-fewest clutch minutes (17) and the third-fewest clutch games (7) in the league as the team has passed the quarter-pole of the season.
This lack of competitiveness has left the team to point to progress that is a bit smaller as the group tries to establish its identity and way to play with a young and injury-depleted roster.
Small victories like improving on something the team struggled in one game to the next — the team committed only nine turnovers for eight points after committing 15 for 22 in the loss to the Bulls. Integrating new focuses and finding success with it is certainly a sign of growth.
It might be all the team can do to cope with the losing and find ways to keep their confidence and show their process is working.
“We just talked about tonight, we go from the live-ball turnovers last game to limiting those to keeping the ball in the half-court, getting back in transition,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Saturday’s loss. “Our guys are doing a better job crawling into the ball, making sure we’re moving the ball and getting the shots that we like. Tonight I really liked our shot selection. It has been about the fight for us and our ability to keep getting better night in and night out.”
But this team has felt like a constant barrage of plugging holes.
None bigger than the team’s lack of offensive force and shooting. Orlando had plenty of open looks that would not fall in Saturday’s loss. But the team ended up shooting 39.8-percent from the floor and 8 for 32 from deep.
The Magic are one of the worst teams in the league by almost every measure — last in net rating, 27th in offensive rating and 29th in defensive rating.
This team has some strong defensive moments but still does not look like they can put together a complete 48-minute effort. It is hard to say what this team’s identity is — although it is clear from Mosley’s statements and focus, he wants to be a defensive team.
Little victories are nice, but this is a zero-sum game where winning is the ultimate judge. At 4-17, there have been precious few of those. The team has had to keep its competitive fire and play to the end even with the hopes of winning often escaping them late.
“It’s not easy, especially for the younger guys,” Franz Wagner said after Saturday’s loss. “This being my first year, it is definitely an adjustment. Like I said, having guys like [Terrence Ross] or [Robin Lopez] is helping me a lot. You always want to compete and always want to come out on top at the end. Still having that competitive spirit I think is really important as well. But also knowing every team goes through these phases.”
That has been one of the roles for the veterans. They have had to try to keep the younger players focused on the bigger picture and the development that is coming despite the losing at this point in the season.
If anyone on the team knows what it will ultimately take for this team to win and how the team can build the right habits and mindsets at this point it is them.
Perhaps the team’s biggest weakness to this point, besides the long- and short-term injuries that have shifted an already depleted roster, is its youth. The team will struggle to get itself focused when runs are mounting. That is what young teams tend to do.
While that is no excuse, in the end, the team has to overcome it and learn how to stick together and stick to the game plan even in the face of these struggles.
“As teammates, we’ve got to keep each other’s spirits buoyed,” Lopez said after Saturday’s loss. “Keep picking each other up during the rough times. Knowing it’s going to be a bit of a roller coaster of a season. We’re going to have ups and going to have downs. That’s the nature of the NBA.”
There is still a lot of season left and a lot for this team to learn.
There are a lot of little lessons and improvements this team is making. There is still a generally exciting future (plus the promise of another high Lottery pick on the way despite it all).
The team has pieces to continue improving. But they have not come together yet.
The Magic are knocking on the door and showing how good they can be. They are showing the warrior mentality to win. But they have not been able to do them in the right combinations to make concrete progress yet.