There was a lot working against the Orlando Magic on Saturday night in Washington, D.C., against the Washington Wizards.
Among the annoying quirks of the NBA schedule are the rare appearances of home-to-road back-to-backs. These are difficult travel days for every team and games that typically fall into the category of “schedule loss.” There are always a few of those where the grueling nature of the NBA schedule catches up to every team.
No one will ever use that as an excuse.
Every team faces that challenge at some point. Every team faces rest deficits and has to take advantage when luck turns in their favor (think the Orlando Magic’s home win against the Oklahoma City Thunder when the Thunder traveled forward a time zone after a home game the previous night… everyone knew the Thunder were losing that night).
Nobody was surprised the Magic lost Saturday’s game. Nobody was particularly surprised the team fought and battled to stay within shouting distance of the lead even though they could not get over the hump.
What was surprising, and the element that is giving a hungry fan base pause, was how much the team struggled to string together stops. It was surprising how the team was caught so flat-footed once again and how consistently this is happening.
The Orlando Magic have “leveled up” at least in one way. Now they seem ready to take the next steps and level up again. It is time to raise the team’s standard again.
The team fell to the Washington Wizards 138-118. A score that did not reach that margin until late in the fourth quarter as the Orlando Magic stayed tantalizingly close if they could lock in their defense as they did in Friday’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
But it was a game where Orlando never could get over the hump. It was a game where the Orlando Magic were never the aggressors — as they were in another blowout loss to the Sacramento Kings — and never got themselves going defensively.
For a team that has said it wants to hang its hat on defense, the group played an unacceptable defensive effort — even excusing some for the back-to-back. The Magic gave up a season-worst 138 points and their fourth games of more than 130 points per 100 possessions.
"“138 is too much,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Saturday’s loss. “There’s no excuse for that. There’s no excuse for us letting go of it on that side of the ball. We have to do better and we will be better. This group responds the right way. They communicate with each other when it comes to that and we’ll be able to bounce back the next game.”"
This is the first place the team needs to raise its standards. And where everyone should put its focus for lifting this team up to the next level.
The Magic’s defense has remained all over the place. They are still 24th in the league in defensive rating at 114.8 points allowed per 100 possessions.
In January, the team has fallen to 116.7 points allowed per 100 possessions (21st in the league this month). The team has yet to harden or form this identity — although the Magic have a 114.2 defensive rating since Dec. 1, which is 11th in the league at that time.
Things are even worse in situations like Saturday night. Orlando is just 1-8 on the second night of back-to-backs with a defensive rating of 121.9 points allowed per 100 possessions.
But this gets to the larger point for the team. They have not taken that final turn toward having the day-to-day focus necessary to make that final climb in the standings.
And that might have been what was so clear from their loss Saturday night. The Magic are still a young team learning how to win in this league and experiencing a taste of success — they are essentially .500 since Dec. 1 which is progress — but they are nothing more right now.
Even though everyone wants them to be more.
"“That’s who we have to be. There are no excuses,” Markelle Fultz said after Saturday’s loss. “This is the NBA. Everyone has back-to-backs. We understand that guys are not always going to feel the best and have the right necessary mindset going into the games. That’s where we have to lean on each other and find a way to pick each other up and have each other’s back.”"
The postseason and the opportunity for meaningful games are on the horizon. Yet, it sometimes feels the Magic are not caught up with this notion.
This was a season for “leveling up.” Without a doubt, the Magic have done so.
Yet, it feels like the Magic should be looking for the next level beyond that. Perhaps the carrot is too close and that has everyone racing to buy their Magic stock and see immediate dividends.
Orlando is the hot ticket right now. And frustration is seeing the team capable of more and not quite turned loose to reach that new level — and all the pitfalls that come with it.
"“We’re just going to keep fighting. Nobody gives up,” Fultz said after Saturday’s loss. “Everyone has the right mindset. I think we’re just showing how good we can be. It’s just about putting it all together for four quarters, continuing to build, and continuing to be able to adjust on the fly and understand what it takes to win. I think we are doing a good job understanding what it takes to win, it’s just about doing it the whole game.”"
There are two tracks the Magic are on seemingly.
There is the development track the team has professed is its goal. The one where they make sure young players have room to play and make some mistakes before getting the hook. This is the ultimate goal and focus for the team and the organization this season.
Then there is the track the fans see this team is clearly capable of. The track that has the team a mere 4.5 games out of the final play-in spot and 4.5 games clear of the Charlotte Hornets and the very bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
The team has essentially tread water since winning eight of nine games in December (and going 8-7 in the month overall). The team is 4-5 in January so far.
To some extent, the Magic have made significant progress in just being .500 for the past 53 days and for 34 games. For nearly half the season Orlando is on pace for 41 wins and that would put the team comfortably in the postseason chase.
This is the potential everyone sees. This is the potential everyone is ready for this team to live up to. The question is whether the Magic are ready to hold themselves to this lofty standard and whether the carrot of chasing the postseason is really the end goal.
The players will certainly say it is. And that is enough to start holding them to a standard to reach it — and falling short is as informative as reaching that goal in the end for what the Magic can probably already characterize as a smashing success.
The Magic need to raise their standards. They need to act like a team that is growing but is focused on wins throughout this second half of the season. Some of the experimenting and tinkering can continue, but the team needs the stability that you would expect from a winning team.
And that changes the goals of this season. It makes Saturday’s game all the more disappointing.
The Magic are nearing a point where they should merge these two goals — the development and the desire to win. Orlando has to continue raising its standards. They are ready for it.
They have leveled up in that way.