Difference for the Orlando Magic will come in the clutch

The Orlando Magic had their share of big wins at the Amway Center. To take a step up this year, the team needs to be more consistent at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic had their share of big wins at the Amway Center. To take a step up this year, the team needs to be more consistent at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

There is inevitably one question that every team has to ask itself at one point or another: Who is going to take the last shot?

That is a debate that roils through a lot of teams. And the successful teams have these clear answers. The best teams have a pecking order and this is the kind of question that reveals a lot about a team.

The debate of who takes the last shot for the Orlando Magic is both an interesting one — Cole Anthony has the history of big shots, Terrence Ross has clutch genes too, Paolo Banchero is the seemingly next star and Franz Wagner is a pretty good option too — but also one that reveals the central problem to the team.

The team needs that one guy they can rely on to take that shot.

That is perhaps a question that will answer itself as the team begins to play. This is not the space to make that argument. This is the space to answer the other side of this question.

The NBA is a difficult business. Scratching out wins can make the difference between a good season and a bad one.

The Orlando Magic are preparing for a season of learning how to win. Inevitably the difference between a surprising season and a disappointing one could be how they perform in the clutch.

It is as true as it can be that good teams do not win close games, they avoid them.

But this Magic team is not likely to be a good team. And the reality for Orlando is the difference between the team sneaking into playoff or play-in contention and being at the bottom of the standings could well be how they perform in the clutch.

And so that question of who takes that last shot could end up being vitally important for the team. At the very least, the directive to “level up” that coach Jamahl Mosley has spoken about is getting at being tuned into the details to execute down the stretch and win games.

According to NBA.com’s clutch definition (within five points in the final minutes), the Magic went 13-20 in clutch situations, the second-fewest clutch wins in the league. The 33 clutch games the Magic played were the fourth-fewest in the league.

That line about avoiding close games is only half the story. Teams at the bottom of the standings also struggle to play in close games.

It is a stated goal for the Magic to give themselves a chance to win more often. So the reality is the Magic this year would like to see themselves play more close games and give themselves more chances to win games. It follows logically that you cannot win more games if you are not closer in games.

Playing more close games will inevitably give the team more wins. If playing close games is a 50/50 shot at winning them, then increasing this number alone will put the Magic in a better position to win.

Whether the team will be able to win these games is another matter entirely. Winning or losing close games can make or break seasons.

The Phoenix Suns, for instance, had the best record in the league and feasted on close games going 33-9 in those games. That helped pad their record and open up a wider lead for the league’s best record.

Of the top 10 teams with the most clutch wins, eight made the Playoffs with one (the LA Clippers) making the Play-In Tournament. Only the Washington Wizards missed the playoffs from this group. Among the bottom 10 teams in clutch wins, only three made the playoffs — the Boston Celtics, New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz.

This is all a mixed bag for sure. But the key, as always, is to find ways to win games. Life can be easier for top teams if they do not have to play in these games and win easily. Everyone else is trying to scratch out wins where they can.

The difference between overperforming or underperforming a team’s stats is quite often its ability to steal games in close situations. The New York Knicks, for instance, went 20-16 in close games in 2021 to get the 4-seed and then went 18-26 last year to miss the playoffs.

The margins can be that thin.

If Orlando is going to have a surprising season and make an unexpected climb up the standings, you can bet that it will be because the team is able to play in more close games and win a good chunk of them.

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So that leads to the next question: Who will lead this closing revolution?

The Magic despite their precious few clutch wins last year, had some really surprising and fun moments.

Whether it was Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton’s finishing flourish in a win over the Utah Jazz in November. Or Jalen Suggs making plays on both ends in a win at New York early in the season. Or Franz Wagner hitting a step-back three in a win over the Denver Nuggets in December. Or Gary Harris going off against the Indiana Pacers late in the season. Or Wendell Carter bullying the Oklahoma City Thunder in a late-season win.

Every team has its late-game successes in the course of an 82-game season.

Statistically, the Magic were only -3.0 points per 100 possessions in late-game situations. Considering how small the time period is when games are considered clutch that can be quite significant. But the team was still slightly below the league median in this number. Their 101.9 defensive rating in clutch situations was sixth in the league, another sign the team could be due for a defensive revival.

But ultimately, the end of games is about an ability to score. And that is where the Magic struggle in all facets. They need scorers and the ability to execute late in games.

And so the question that follows is: Who will step up to take those shots?

Anthony, predictably, was the player the Magic relied on most in the clutch. He averaged 3.2 points per game in clutch situations, leading the team too with 2.2 field goal attempts per game. He made 42.9 percent, keeping his regular shooting efficiency (as poor as it was overall) in clutch situations.

Franz Wagner comes next on that list with 1.9 points per game on 40.7-percent shooting. It is clear Orlando is still figuring out who their closer is and how to execute the team’s offense to get good shots late.

That creates a long hill to climb.

Offense is still the biggest impediment to any success for the Magic. And if they want to turn things around, they need scorers.

That is at least one area where the team believes Paolo Banchero can help.

Banchero has all the makeup of a typical late-game scorer and creator. The Magic certainly hope his presence will help boost the team’s overall fortunes on that end.

In his lone year at Duke, he put together his share of big moments and big shots but he is still fairly untested late in games thanks to Duke’s copious talent.

Against Clemson in January, Banchero scored four of his 19 points in the final two minutes to keep Duke in the lead in what became a two-point win.  In the NCAA Tournament against Texas Tech, Banchero made the go-ahead 3-pointer with three minutes to play as Duke advanced.

One of the areas the Magic will need to test him is with his ability to finish games. That is still the big question facing the team overall.

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And if the Magic want to have a dream season, it will take winning and executing in close games to get there. That might be the only shortcut the Magic take to success this year.