Orlando Magic cannot let season become a sink to the bottom

Saddiq Bey hung another big number on the Orlando Magic, scoring 51 points as the Magic continued a sink to the bottom. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Saddiq Bey hung another big number on the Orlando Magic, scoring 51 points as the Magic continued a sink to the bottom. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

Final. 134. 64. 120. 38

The question came up to Jamahl Mosley before the Orlando Magic’s game against the Detroit Pistons. How do you keep your team focused on the task at hand when everyone on the outside is talking about something else? More specifically, talking about your team losing.

The fact that Iowa’s NCAA Tournament loss to Richmond was playing on one of the TVs in the interview room at Amway Center with media huddled around it until Mosley came into the room should not be lost on anyone. When it comes to the Magic and the Pistons, attention might be turning elsewhere this week.

It did not help dispel these thoughts when Cade Cunningham was a scratch after he struggled through a pregame routine as he dealt with a non-COVID illness and then both Wendell Carter and Chuma Okeke were afternoon scratches for the Magic.

Mosley dutifully answered the question presented:

The team is going to tune out the outside noise. Their focus is on trying to get better and improve every day. That is the line every coach is going to give in that situation. And it is something the team should still aspire to do.

Still, the Magic have to play with some purpose. They have to make the most of this time. They cannot simply play out the string. This should not be a time to go through the motions. This is a time to commit to who this team wants to be.

The Orlando Magic’s fan base might be turning its focus beyond this season. But the team still needs to find its purpose and style to close the season.

If the rest of the season is like the Magic’s 134-120 loss to the Pistons on Thursday at Amway Center, alarm bells should be ringing. Or at least there should be a “check engine light” on or something. This is the kind of loss that teams in forever rebuilds typically have.

This is not the way the Magic have played most of the year and certainly recently. This is not who they want to be as a team.

They played without intensity, attention to detail and composure throughout. This is a team backsliding in a major way.

"“I don’t think we brought it tonight, to be honest with you,” Moe Wagner said after Thursday’s loss. “I think they had 70 points in the first half [73, actually], that’s unacceptable for a team that’s trying to prove something. Regardless of who it is, we have to come out with energy. This is the second straight night somebody came in here and had a field day and that’s unacceptable.”"

Saddiq Bey finished with a career-high 51  points, making 10 3-pointers in the game. He had 21 at the end of the first quarter, a shellshock reminder of Tuesday’s scoring onslaught from Kyrie Irving.

To close the second quarter, he drained a 3-pointer from the corner. The Pistons then stole a lazy inbound pass and set Bey up for one more 3-pointer to hit 30 points at halftime.

Deja Vu, indeed.

The Magic before Tuesday’s loss to the Nets had the best defensive rating in the league since the All-Star Break. They have been playing like a top-10 defense since January (only falling to 11th after their season-worst performance on Tuesday).

Even without Wendell Carter and Jalen Suggs in the lineup, the Magic have to have some pride and some sense of their identity. This is meant to be a defensive team.

But Orlando was late defensively throughout the night, often switching too easily or leaving sharpshooter Bey open to try to defend the paint.

What became worse was how the Pistons took advantage of that poor defensive positioning and over-switching. The Pistons grabbed 10 offensive rebounds for 25 second-chance points. Orlando, playing without Wendell Carter, struggled to compete on the glass. Those second-chance points just kept accumulating as Detroit built its lead.

The Magic kept up offensively until the midpoint of the second quarter. That is when they got stuck. The ball stayed in the hands of dribblers too often and did not move.

When it did get into the paint, it did not spray back out to the perimeter or players attempted tough shots at the rim. The Magic saw all of their turnovers turn into scoring opportunities on the other end — the Pistons scored 29 points off 14 Magic turnovers.

As Moe Wagner put it when the team got down, they tried to solve it themselves instead of trusting teammates to help get them out of it. This is not how the Magic have found whatever limited success they have had this year.

"“I think a huge part of it is the mentality,” Moe Wagner said after Thursday’s loss. “You can’t get bored doing the right things. Another thing is I’m a big believer in offense plays a huge role on defense. If you play the right way and move the ball, everyone is more willing to play with energy and talk to each other. It’s just human nature.“You have to keep building and you’ve got to keep improving. This isn’t the time to build your own resume. This is a long-term game we’re playing and you have to stay bought into that.”"

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A lot of things went wrong Thursday.

But the Magic still just needed to put in some defense to get over the hump and give them a chance. That is the tantalizing part still about the team.

Franz Wagner scored 13 of his 26 points in the third quarter, helping the Magic cut the deficit down to six. It got extended back out as Orlando struggled to get stops consistently.

Defense is still central to this team’s success and potential. And it is what let them down Thursday.

Franz Wagner said the team has to play more physically and communicate a lot better to get back to where they were defensively even just a week ago. The team has gotten disconnected. Perhaps it does have something to do with the new lineups that are out there as players have sat out with injuries lately.

The team will just have to get back to work.

"“This group is so tied together and we continue to communicate with one another,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Thursday’s loss. Our coaches are always going to be upbeat. We’re going to keep pouring into our guys and continue to help them grow. These losses, it stings. You want it to sting. You want to understand how it hurts. But they also understand you get back to work the next day.”"

The Magic have taken a lot of losses. But they have largely kept that long-term game in mind. They understand what they are trying to build and have taken steps to build it.

But this is the first time the team has struggled to respond and fight back. With the end in sight, it is easy for everyone to start looking beyond the season.

Fans certainly have started looking ahead with what appeared to be at stake in this game.

But the Magic are trying to build something long-term. This team is trying to establish itself and build good habits. There are no good habits built in a loss like this. Not if the team is trying to play the way that helped it find some success these last 2.5 months.

"“I think it would be nice for the last 11 games to compete at a really high level,” Franz Wagner said after Thursday’s loss. “I think that is not easy to do with the way the season went. I think it would be great for all of us to show that and take some pride in what we do out there.”"

As Franz Wagner put it, defense is not as much about technique and more about pride and effort. That has certainly been missing lately.

There is clearly still a lot of work to do. The last thing the Magic should do is give up the opportunity to get some work in and keep growing these last dozen or so games.

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There is still something to learn to close the season.