The NBA regular season is a marathon. It requires players not to get too high or too low.
These are the cliches you constantly hear players tell media when they discuss the regular ups and downs of a season. They are well-worn but true. Nobody should overreact one way or the other to a win. This league has a way of humbling you and rewarding you when you least expect it.
More than that though, the NBA regular season is about finding that level ground. As the water crashes up and down, the regular season becomes about what you do best every single night. That center of gravity that pulls a team back toward Earth. An identity the team can live on.
Young teams rarely have this identity set.
Most of those teams are merely learning how to compete at an NBA level and experience winning for the first time. They are trying to understand what it takes to play on a night-in and night-out basis.
Veteran teams know this intrinsically.
They have been through battles. Their coaches have been through them and know how to manage their teams. They know their identity and play to those very basics no matter who is in or out of the lineup.
It does not matter who is missing, even if it is the team’s most important players. They can still put pressure on teams.
Looking for the difference between an injury-depleted Orlando Magic team and the injury-depleted Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night? It is that constant drumbeat of consistency. It is that understanding of their basic identity and that constant grind it takes to get there.
The Orlando Magic are still developing their identity and the thing they can hang their hat on. Until then the team is going to be continually inconsistent as they seek some answers.
The 76ers, under veteran coach Doc Rivers and stocked with veteran players, know what that drumbeat sounds and feels like. The Magic, under a rookie head coach and with players all in their first and second seasons, do not have that knowledge.
It is hard to say they even know what their identity is at this point. They certainly have not discovered that one thing they can do consistently every night. The bedrock they can rest their whole season on and work on every night.
That is how the Magic found themselves struggling to separate from the 76ers on Friday night at the Amway Center despite a strong offensive first half. That is how the 76ers found themselves pulling away throughout the second half for a 107-99 win.
It was all about that solid drumbeat.
The drumbeat that came from Tobias Harris and his steady attacks on the paint. The reliable and smart 3-point shooting from De’Anthony Melton and Shake Milton. The work on the glass from Montrezl Harrell and the hard work from everyone on the Sixers.
"“I just think we had some bad turnovers, myself included, that just gave them the ball,” Banchero said after Friday’s game about some of the Magic’s late-game miscues. “That part of the game when it’s the last four or five minutes, you want to get a good shot every time down. Having those live ball turnovers didn’t help at all. They just made big shots and big plays. They have a lot of veteran players who are comfortable in that moment, and you can tell.”"
The Sixers know exactly who they are and what they need to do. Even with players out. They may have to overcome more without key players, but they bring the same effort and attention to detail regardless of who is in or out.
Philadelphia is a solid defensive team, ranking fifth in the league in defensive rating. That is not something that is built solely on one player even one as good as Joel Embiid. They know the kind of 3-point shots they want to get and how to feed into it.
This is something the Magic lack. They do not have a set identity.
Their offense aims to get into the paint, but relies on isolation to get there — whether that is from Franz Wagner or the returning Paolo Banchero. And that worked throughout the first half with Bol Bol scoring 15 points and the team totaling 32 points in the paint. Orlando had 11 free throws at the break. The Magic even had 13 fast-break points.
That is a formula to win games for this team.
But it is not something the team is able to repeat all the time.
Not when teams tighten the screws. Orlando found itself unable to beak this funk or hit the big shots that could shift momentum and get the team over the top.
The Magic finished the second half with just 43 total points, 16 points in the paint (on just 8-for-16 shooting) and four fast-break points. Bol had only three points after his stellar first half as neither Banchero nor Wagner could carry the team back into it.
The Magic needed some critical shots that would not fall.
But more alarmingly, the team gave up eight offensive rebounds in the second half alone (13 total for the game). They were unable to track long rebounds and constantly got caught out of position or getting beat to 50/50 balls.
The Magic were scrambling and struggling to track players. Their defense just is not stopping anyone consistently.
Orlando’s switching defense continued to look lost as players at times would make the switch late, opening a lane to the basket or rotate to the wrong spot. This was not a single player making these errors, it was a team-wide issue that did not seem to resolve itself.
It is something that has been a problem throughout the entire season. The Magic entered the game 26th in defensive rating. Orlando has not been able to stop much of anybody and the team’s offense is not consistent enough to score.
It all adds up to a team hunting for itself even a quarter of the way through the season.
"“It’s a learning process I think,” Wagner said after Friday’s game. “I think it’s tough for some of our bigs that basically their whole life, they were told to not switch and stay with their guy and we keep switching it up. It’s tough for the guards because they are always told to chase over and now they are doing something different.”"
It is certainly an adjustment. And the Magic are switching a whole lot more on screens throughout the game. It takes constant communication that this team seems a bit behind on.
The Magic are down a lot of players true and their depth is not the same but they are a different team seemingly every night.
It is hard to say what their drumbeat is. Or whether that drumbeat actually creates a rhythm they can build off.
If the Magic are searching for something out of this season, it is to find that identity they can build off. Not merely the players they will orbit around.
With such a young roster, maybe it is impossible to find it so easily. The team is mismatched and still undermanned.
But the Magic have to find something they can latch onto. They thought it would be their defense but that seemingly is not converting whether it is from bad personnel that does not fit the scheme or a bad scheme. Something is not working that requires the team to reset itself.
The team is struggling to find that constant drumbeat to march on through the season. And that is why a team like the Sixers could survive and a team like the Magic is struggling to stay above water.