Orlando Magic searching for consistency in the season’s second half

Walker Kessler proved to be a force to turn the Orlando Magic away from the paint. Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports
Walker Kessler proved to be a force to turn the Orlando Magic away from the paint. Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports /

Everyone knows how things went down in the Orlando Magic’s 112-108 loss to the Utah Jazz.

The Magic trailed by one point with Colin Sexton at the foul line. The usually surefire free-throw shooter missed both free throws. All the Magic had to do was get the rebound to give themselves a chance to win.

That seems like a simple thing. Offensive rebounds after missed free throws are a rare thing in the NBA. This was a pro forma deal. The Magic would get their chance to retake the lead down one point.

But nothing is ever certain in the NBA. Wins are always hard to come by and there is no sure thing.

Jazz rookie Walker Kessler outworked Mo Bamba, snatching the rebound over the Magic’s big man and holding on as the Magic franticly fouled him to extend the game. Kessler made both free throws. Lauri Markkanen would block Franz Wagner’s game-tying 3-point attempt and the Jazz would hold on.

It left the Magic asking only: How did this happen? How did the Magic lose on seemingly the simplest of plays? Why is something that is so reliable suddenly thrown up in the air?

The Orlando Magic gave themselves a real chance to win. But it was again the little things that derailed them. The team is struggling to find consistency to build up their positives in meaningful ways.

The Magic, of course, did not lose the game solely because they could not corral that rebound off the missed free throw. As important as that moment seemed, games are won or lost on the accumulation of events.

This Magic team has the elements to be a very good team. They have had long stretches — including the 17-4 run in the fourth quarter that helped the Magic rally from a 12-point deficit with about five minutes remaining to take the lead in the final two minutes on multiple occasions — where they look like the consistent, postseason-capable outfit.

Then they have stretches where those details are missing. And those moments and stretches are the ones that can derail the team and keep them from building wins to stay in the postseason chase.

The big thing the Magic are missing, and perhaps the big quest for the rest of the season, is simply consistency. The team never knows what it can rely on every single night.

It will be hard to win on any given night without that dependability and reliability in the team’s effort, focus and identity.

The Magic have made defending the paint their calling card overall, but their rebounding would not suggest that it is fully their identity. Or their rebounding has not enabled them to take advantage of what gains they have made defensively overall.

That was the inconsistency on display in Friday night’s loss. It is emblematic of why the Magic have not been able to take that next leap. This explains why the team can show improvement in several areas and still tread water at 4-6 in their last 10 games.

The Magic are 13th in the league overall in defensive rebound rate at 72.2 percent but have fallen to 20th in the league at 70.8 percent during the last 10 games.

Those are a lot of extra possessions and a lot of extra chances to break the Magic’s defense. Teams score 13.4 second-chance points per game off the Magic on average this season, good for 12th in the league. That is a solid mark slightly above the league average.

Even in the last 10 games, the Magic have gotten better at limiting these second chances even as they struggle to corral offensive rebounds. Opponents score 11.7 second-chance points per game against the Magic in the last 10 games.

Perhaps the combination of giving up more offensive rebounds but fewer second-chance points finally came to roost Friday night. That is simply not sustainable and the Jazz finally broke the dam.

That play from Kessler was a symbol of the team’s overall issues on the glass Friday night. Utah outrebounded Orlando 59-40 and had 17 offensive rebounds. Kessler’s heroic rebound was his seventh offensive rebound of the game.

The Magic had an abysmal defensive rebound rate of 62.0 percent (not even grabbing two of every three defensive rebounds!). That is the third-worst mark of the year (the losses to the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks were worse).

More concerning, perhaps, the Magic now have two straight games with a defensive rebound rate of worse than 65 percent. They have not had a defensive rebound rate of more than 75 percent since the loss to the Washington Wizards (which the Wizards did not really miss many shots).

Orlando gave up 22 second-chance points on those 17 offensive rebounds. Those 22 points mark the first time the Magic have given up more than 20 second-chance points since beating the Boston Celtics the first time on the road, a span of 14 games.

This was also the third-most second-chance points the Magic have given up in any game.

By all accounts then, Friday’s game was a statistical aberration. The Magic gave up more offensive rebounds and second-chance points than they typically do.

On top of this, the team took only 16 free throws in the game, the third-fewest of any game this season. Those numbers would typically add up to a blowout loss and not a near victory.

The Magic deserve their credit for the way they rallied to retake the lead in the final minutes and for their defense outside of the first quarter and the fouling in the second half that paraded Lauri Markkanen to the line.

Orlando held the fourth-best offense in the league at 115.8 points per 100 possessions to 106.7 points per 100 possessions. There were lots of good things that happened throughout the game, especially outside the first quarter.

Clearly then, the issue Friday night was some of these odd matchups that caused the Magic problems and some of the frustrations that they could not solve it or find relief on offense.

But it gets to the heart of the matter for this young team.

Orlando is a capable defensive team. The Magic show hints at this ability every night. They can be a solid and strong defensive team and they are slowly carving an identity that is repeatable and effective.

But they are missing small elements. It could be something different every night. But the biggest highlights are their struggles to defend without fouling and keeping opponents off the free-throw line (before complaining about the referees not giving the Magic calls, Markkanen still had 21 free throws on his own and most were earned) and then their inconsistency on the glass.

The goal for the Magic for the rest of this season is to find consistency. It is to be a solid defensive team every night without these little blips that cost the team games.

The elements and the strengths are all there. But the team gets derailed too often by one little thing. It could be the frustration over the officiating that knocks them off course. It could be an inability to dig out rebounds or it could be the team fouling too much.

Next. 2nd Quarter MVP: Markelle Fultz signaled consistency. dark

Orlando has to find consistency in the last half of the season. Otherwise, there will be more frustrating nights like Friday. And seeking that consistency is the difference for this team taking a bigger step forward.