Orlando Magic never lost their joy to grow together through rough season

Markelle Fultz took control of the game with a season-ending double-double for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Markelle Fultz took control of the game with a season-ending double-double for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

111. 110. 125. 38. Final

The Orlando Magic’s final game of a 22-60 season never felt like the last day of school. It never felt like the team wanted to say goodbye to this season. It did not feel like a team that had spent most of the season at the bottom of the standings, as the worst offensive team in the league or a team counting ping pong balls at the end of the year.

To watch the Orlando Magic and how they played and reacted throughout the course of their 125-111 win over the East-leading (but depleted for playoff rest) Miami Heat, this was not the picture of a team playing its final game.

It was a team that still seemed eager to play for each other and probably wishes it could go back to work tomorrow.

The Magic, injured starters and those playing, celebrated every moment of what would otherwise be a forgotten season.

That joy has been present for the Magic throughout this season. The one thing anyone can sing the praises of for this team that finished with the second-worst record in the league is that they played for each other, celebrated each other’s successes and had fun in the process.

The Orlando Magic never wavered in their togetherness and played their final game with a lot of joy as they look ahead to the offseason and the building to come.

That is not going to lead directly to wins. There are still a lot of questions about the roster and how all these disparate pieces fit together.

But for a young team learning how to win and learning to play together while laying the foundations during a rebuild, it was a point of emphasis the coaching staff preached. And one thing that got through to them until the end.

"“I think in that first level of communication, I think we talked about we’re going to compete every night, we’re going to work every day to get better and we’re going to have fun doing it,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Sunday’s win. “We’ve talked about all year the spirit of these young men. The energy and atmosphere of our fans, who are fantastic, and our young group has been fantastic no matter what’s going on. That’s a testament to them and our coaching staff every day bringing positive energy and encouragement and lifting these guys up.”"

That joy was evident throughout the season. The chemistry and camaraderie with the team was clear throughout this season. Nobody had to tell anyone on this team to be invested in each other as much as they were invested in the larger project they were starting.

Moritz Wagner pump-faked Omer Yurtseven off his feet and drove the baseline for a powerful one-handed jam. That got Franz Wagner, Jalen Suggs and Wendell Carter off the bench and dancing to celebrate their teammate.

Markelle Fultz dished crazy passes all around the perimeter, hitting Ignas Brazdeikis in the corner for a three on a double-pump dish in the second quarter then topping that with a cross-court one-handed skip pass to Chuma Okeke in the third for two of his career-best 15 assists. His most meaningful pass was a simple one to Devin Cannady in the fourth quarter.

Cannady’s three off that pass was the Magic’s 23rd three of the night, tying the team record set by the vaunted 2009 team (then a league record that has since long been surpassed). Cannady, himself freshly signing a reported multiyear deal to stay with the Magic, lifted his hands up in thanks as teammates celebrated.

The actual result of this final game of the season scarcely mattered. The Magic sat all but Mo Bamba of their opening night starting lineup. The Heat rested most of their heavy hitters. The two teams played with little defensive intensity and hoisted a combined 108 3-point attempts — the Magic shot a franchise-record 58 3-pointers.

Related Story. Defense the highlight of Chuma Okeke's season. light

That is the kind of game it was. It was messy and not particularly focused. No stat or performance from this game likely means anything.

But it was still fun. And the team let that joy play out on the court. That was the case the entire season.

"“It was just really exciting and I was just really happy,” Bamba said after Sunday’s win of his season. “People ask me all the time how is the season going or how has it gone and I tell them obviously you want to win a lot more games but this is the most fun I’ve had playing basketball since I started. . . . We know our goal, we know where we want to be and we know where we want to go. Everything is just ahead of us.”"

To get to this last game and still have this feeling of discovery and support is certainly a minor accomplishment in a season like this. The entire team understood a long road was ahead of them back in September as everyone tried to temper expectations.

This would be a season of growth and learning. Players would be trying to find their way in the league and looking to improve. The team itself was going to spend the year figuring out how all those pieces would fit together.

The team understood there was a bigger picture out there that they were working toward.

The team still has a long way to go though. There were encouraging signs in this first year for sure. But still nothing permanent enough to believe in.

The Magic will finish the year with the second-worst offense in the league and 19th-best defense in the league. Orlando was better defensively since Jan. 1, a span of more than half the season. But like everything else, the question for the Magic is what is permanent and real.

It is all just a possibility and the potential to turn into something. That is what this season was spent discovering.

"“I know the record does not always show what has grown and what has progressed,” Mosley said after Sunday’s game. “This group of young men, they’ve stayed together. There has been a spirit on the court every single night. That’s going to turn up another level as we walk into next year. Our guys are excited about it. I think the fans should be extremely excited about it because they see the way these young men play together, play for one another and continue to battle no matter what’s happening within the game or in the season.”"

That is going to change moving forward. The team has laid down pieces of its foundation. The team now has to do the building part of the rebuild. They have to start putting pieces together and building with an eye on winning.

Everyone understood that is now the task entering the offseason. There will be hard days ahead and a lot of work to get done to get there.

But the team accomplished at least part of its goal this year. Mosley spoke all season about instilling joy in playing together and the work to get there.

On their final day together this season, Orlando played with the enthusiasm and joy the team wanted to instill. The Magic were there for each other in a game that had no meaning except to play.

Next. Orlando Magic tried not to skip steps with Franz Wagner. dark

Now they just have to put in the work and make the fun last and make the fun meaningful as they try to build a winning culture.