Orlando Magic need to “level up” after another late-game loss

The Orlando Magic again made critical errors down the stretch as the team struggles to close games. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic again made critical errors down the stretch as the team struggles to close games. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports /

149. Final. 108. 38. 116

All offseason, Orlando Magic coach Jamahl Mosley had an edict for his team. It was the same marching order he gave the team as they concluded their season in 2022.

It morphed and grew to include accountability and doing more of the things that lead to wins. The ultimate goal was coming into focus and the top overall pick only brought things more into focus and a higher gear.

The Magic needed to “level up.”

Orlando’s time trading on vibes was done. The young team that took its lumps and struggled through the 2022 season was going to have to improve individually in the offseason and then come together and learn to win.

The Magic always knew this would be a process. It was not something that would happen overnight with such a young roster. There were always going to be growing pains. But this season is firmly about learning what it takes to win, going through mistakes and learning from them quickly.

This may not be the year the Magic compete for a spot in the Play-In Tournament — players talked at Media Day with that kind of confidence but no one would officially put those expectations — but they certainly wanted to be the young team that pointed in that direction.

It bears repeating now eight games — and six clutch-game losses — into this young season then: The Magic need to “level up.”

The Orlando Magic again lost a close game, pointing to their mistakes and frustration for poor execution. For a young team trying to learn to win, their time to level up is now.

Whatever Mosley ultimately meant by that term, the Orlando Magic’s 116-108 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday should be a game that forces the team to look in the mirror and ask whether they are taking those necessary next steps or trading on the good vibes of being a League Pass darling and the team with the No. 1 pick.

The latter of those two is nice, but not the ultimate end goal. While there are still some hard lessons to learn, the Magic cannot be the ones constantly making mental errors and leave these games frustrated.

The Magic keep losing games the exact same way time and time again. Leveling up would mean learning from those mistakes quickly and improving. Instead, the team is falling into the same traps.

"“We just have to take our time, especially down the stretch being more poised on the offensive end,” Wendell Carter said after Tuesday’s game. “We made them make tough shots. They made them. But at the same time we played into their hands and the exact game they wanted to play.”"

In Tuesday’s loss, it was seemingly a cascading effect of errors.

The Magic had given up a 15-point lead as its bench struggled to close the third quarter. But the starters returned and gave the team some stability and effort. Orlando had an 11-point lead with about 7.5 minutes to play.

But after that, the Magic began to get in their own way.

The Magic failed to make a field goal after Carter’s three gave the team an 11-point lead. That seemingly dropped their energy as they began forcing the ball into the paint trying to scratch out any basket they could.

That proved to be difficult and the Thunder gained confidence with each make. Orlando was unable to find their resilience or energy on that end one last time. The ball was rolling down the hill and the Magic looked tired and frustrated.

In the end, the result was the same. As positive as this team can look, they are still not winning games.

“Leveling up” as the coaching staff seemed to preach it was supposed to mean learning from mistakes and holding each other accountable. Sure, the team is playing without a natural point guard, but the mistakes the team is making — from the turnovers to the pressed and rushed shot selection late in games — are all repeated in this short season.

Orlando is not learning or improving upon its mistakes. Not in the biggest moments of the game. The ball is not finding the right player or the right moment and the team is climbing uphill as it tries to break this streak.

All of these mistakes are completely correctible too, adding to the frustration.

Turnovers have been the biggest miscue and was all Mosley could talk about as the missed opportunity in this game.

Orlando had 25 turnovers in the game for 30 points. That was enough to keep Oklahoma City in the game throughout helping the team stake a 10-point lead in the second quarter and erase a 15-point deficit in the third quarter.

"“They sped the game up late because we turned the ball over 25 times,” Mosley said after Tuesday’s game. “Twenty-five turnovers for 30 points doesn’t give you an opportunity to settle yourself down and get the same execution you had in the first half. Those are lost possessions. We have to learn to take care of the basketball in crunch time and understand the possession of the basketball is the most important thing.”"

The Magic indeed are playing these games tight. They are one of the worst fourth-quarter teams in the league.

Their fire burns bright, fast and hot and then cools as the team struggles to find that spark to zoom ahead again. And late in games, the Magic are struggling to grip the rope and execute on both ends.

These are the things young teams often struggle to learn. But the Magic have been in these situations enough to learn from these mistakes.

The team’s inconsistent bench and lineup rotations are not helping. The Magic’s starters are playing typical minutes, but Mosley is still running a fairly loose 11-man rotation to fill those minutes. In Tuesday’s game, the Magic’s three main players — Wendell Carter, Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero — all played the entire fourth quarter.

That helped them regain control of the game, but their fatigue late was evident as they lost grip of the lead. Mosley’s gamble to make up for the poor all-bench lineup to close the third quarter did not pay off.

That should not have mattered with the way this team showed itself capable of playing defense — holding Oklahoma City to 38.6-percent shooting as Orlando built a 15-point lead on the grit and energy of its defense. The Magic’s bench was unable to hold the lead, giving it away by the start of the fourth.

This team is still seeking its identity and the things it can rely on.

The Magic want to be a team that wins and knows how to win. It is still a team that continually beats itself in those minutes. And that is why the Magic find themselves at 1-7.

And that is where the team is sitting at. Doing enough positive things to give encouragement through all the injuries the team faces. This is still a young team with a lot of potential and talent that is learning the league on the fly.

But this is also a team that is vastly underperforming that talent. That perhaps is not being put in the best positions to win these games and are making repeated mental errors — whether it be turnovers, bad take fouls or even a second delay of game penalty in the second half that gave the Thunder a free throw.

These are the things the Magic promised to correct and be rid of.

Next. Franz Wagner's shooting, usage are last pieces of the puzzle. dark

They need to level up.