Orlando Magic’s weaknesses get highlighted in late game losses

Cole Anthony stepped up to help the Orlando Magic get into a close game, but he struggled down the stretch in another close loss. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Cole Anthony stepped up to help the Orlando Magic get into a close game, but he struggled down the stretch in another close loss. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

99. 38. Final. 102. 66

Nothing seems to heighten focus or draw attention to flaws in any team quite like a close game.

The entire game and every moment matters as trends develop and patterns and routines become clear. But they can be ignored or hidden in the long 48 minutes of a game. Nothing makes problems clearer or tests a player more than those late-game situations.

Everyone is laid bare in that crucible and you find out just who can stand up to the pressure.

Cole Anthony has stood up to that pressure plenty of times in his young career. A pair of buzzer-beaters last year and a number of late shots have shown he has the mettle to finish. He has the confidence to take that final shot and he might be the only player on the roster who could create his own shot off the dribble.

The Orlando Magic’s late-game struggles only highlight the offensive weaknesses and inconsistency this team faces.

In Tuesday’s game against the Phoenix Suns, there was no doubt the Orlando Magic would not be able to get back into the game and give themselves a chance to win without Anthony.

He hit several big shots down the stretch that helped Orlando erase an eight-point deficit and ultimately tie the game.

There is where the weaknesses come in. How Anthony can sometimes slow the pace of the game and how he can sometimes settle for jumpers. As is often the case with teams that struggle late in games, the offense slows to a crawl and relies heavily on isos, breaking from the offense that gets the team there.

Anthony is the easy target since he is the team’s “closer” and its highest usage player late in games. He is the one initiating offense and getting the team into its sets. A lot of responsibility lies on his shoulders to get the team flowing late.

But everyone had a role to play in not being able to close this one out in a 102-99 loss to the Phoenix Suns. It was not just Anthony who made mistakes down the stretch, it was everyone who saw this team’s weaknesses and frustrations come to the surface in the tight game.

The Magic tied the game at 93 with three minutes to play on a drive and layup from Cole Anthony and briefly took a lead when Wendell Carter hit a pair of free throws a little more than a minute later.

But the team proceeded to struggle from there, failing to hit a field goal in the final two minutes. Orlando’s possessions devolved into frustrating messes with Wendell Carter missing a jumper over Deandre Ayton after getting set up with a post-up and stonewalled on an attempt to get to the rim.

Mo Bamba grabbed the rebound but Deandre Ayton again was there to meet him and send the shot back, preserving what was then a one-point lead for Phoenix.

Still down by one, Orlando’s next possession Anthony got to his spot near the elbow for a pull-up jumper after getting a switch. This was as confident as he has looked attacking a switch, even if it was Jae Crowder lining up against him on the other side.

The shot did not go in and the Magic have to ask themselves whether they could have gotten to the basket. Or even whether devolving into that kind of isolation play and going 4-flat to a pick and roll was really the right call.

Orlando largely held firm defensively and that was a big part of why the team even had a chance to win. But Phoenix made the shots to win the game.

The Suns went to the other end of the floor and ran through their offense, getting a pick and roll that loosened the Magic’s defense enough to get Crowder a 3-pointer. He missed but Ayton was in position to tip the rebound back in. On their next possession, the Suns ran a pick and roll with Cameron Payne setting Deandre Ayton up for a short hook shot.

The Suns led by three. And certainly making shots was a key difference with the game tied. Phoenix executed and converted, Orlando did not.

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As if to drive that point home, the Magic executed a perfect inbounds play down three with 10 seconds left. Franz Wagner came to the ball and seeing that his defender was face guarding him, peeled back out to the top of the key. Chuma Okeke got the ball to him and Franz Wagner created just enough space to get a shot off.

He very well might have sent the game to overtime if Mikal Bridges did not make an incredible recovery to block the shot and seal Orlando’s fate.

In isolation, each play was a critical one that did not necessarily mean the team did not do the right things. The Magic got decent looks that they simply failed to make.

"“I’m proud of each and every one of these guys for the way they continue to compete,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Tuesday’s loss. “And what they’ve worked on daily individually, we’re bringing that together as a team. We’re starting to bring that together.”"

But that does sort of drive the point home, doesn’t it? Orlando is executing well for long stretches and simply not getting the rewards. That becomes more critical in these late-game situations.

The Magic have the worst record in close games in the league right now.

They are 8-17 in close games, not only playing the fewest close games in the league (and they surely are not blowing many teams out to win comfortably) but also the only team with fewer than 10 “clutch” wins this season.

Perhaps even odder, the Magic have a positive net rating in clutch situations at +0.6 points per 100 possessions. That would suggest the team should be closer to .500 in close games (putting them at 13-12). Orlando might have five more wins this season based on the stats.

There is some positive to take even without the results close games demand. The Magic defend well late in games. And that is something Mosley said the team needs to continue “hanging its hat on.”

“It wasn’t our offense, it was more so of our defense tonight,” Wendell Carter said after Tuesday’s loss. “We made it tough for them down the stretch. We did what we had to do. Down the stretch, we gave ourselves a chance against a playoff team. That’s something we can build off of. We didn’t win the game, but I feel like it’s something we can definitely build off of.”

But while Orlando’s defense steps up late in games, the team’s offense gets even worse — scoring just 101.6 points per 100 possessions in clutch situations.

Defenses usually tighten up late in games as teams go to inefficient scoring plays to try to control the clock. But at the end of the games, teams need to make shots. And that is Orlando’s weakness.

Late-game situations display these weaknesses more than anything else. The Magic have one of the worst offenses the league has seen in years — as John Schuhmann pointed out in his weekly power rankings for NBA.com, the Magic are in the bottom five in all four offensive four factors, the only team in the last 25 years to do so.

Orlando has to find its offensive flow and consistency. And that remains something that is elusive — even if there are a few positive signs without the execution part going down. The Magic need to make shots.

That again falls to the chief example for the team.

Anthony scored nine of his 11 points in the fourth quarter and was critical to the team coming back. But he still scored only 11 points and made 4 of 14 shots overall.

The Magic made only 38.0-percent of their shots and just 7 of 39 3-pointers. It is just so hard to win and compete when shots are going down.

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Especially late in games. That is when making or missing shots matters most. And that is where the team is quite simply falling short.