The Orlando Magic and New York Knicks were in a back-and-forth battle through the fourth quarter. How they got here no longer seemed to matter. This was a five-minute game with the teams tied at 82.
There were seven lead changes from that point forward. This was a game, played in front of the third-largest crowd in Amway Center history, which had all the intensity of a playoff battle. The Knicks needed the game to keep up in the race to avoid the Play-In Tournament, the Magic needed it to close the gap further in their chase to reach the postseason.
Games with this kind of intensity turn on the smallest things. The smallest lapse in focus or random bounce of a basketball. Sometimes it is simply about making or missing shots.
Down by one point with 56.1 seconds left, Paolo Banchero sought to answer a floater from Jalen Brunson. He drove along the baseline and went for a difficult-looking layup but got the shot off. The ball rolled around the rim before rolling out.
The Knicks secured the rebound and called timeout with their lead preserved. Banchero was caught by the Bally Sports Florida expressing frustration with himself on the bench, confirmed with a post to social media.
That is the cruelty of this game. And the cruelty of a close, high-intensity game. Someone has to win and someone has to lose. And it can turn on that random bounce.
The Knicks came out of the timeout and got Jalen Brunston to beat Markelle Fultz off the dribble. He engaged Wendell Carter and fed Jericho Sims for a dunk and a three-point lead.
The Magic went for a game-tying three on their next possession after a timeout. But Franz Wagner never got his feet settled even after coming free around a screen. The Knicks gave the Magic one more chance, but they elected to go for two and the Knicks won the free throw game to hold on for a 102-98 victory.
The Orlando Magic played in what felt like a playoff atmosphere as their postseason chase came into focus and a back-and-forth game showed them how thin the difference between winning and losing really is.
Orlando could not get that one stop it needed to keep it a one-point game, the team could not get that one three it needed to stay in the game. The margin for error in a tight game like this was really that small. A bad bounce was the game.
That is what life is like in the postseason though. That is the difference in seeding in the regular season and the difference between taking control of a series and being completely out of a series. These little things have big outcomes.
"“Super thin. It was a very hard-fought game,” coach Jamahl Mosley said of the margin for error in this game. “Both teams battled. To me, it was a playoff-type atmosphere with the physicality. You give up 11 offensive rebounds and you’ve got to knock down free throws. They made some great plays down the stretch. You talk about Jalen [Brunson] and his isolations. Our guys continued to battle.”"
Those moments are still far away for this young Magic team. This is a group that is still learning the finer points of winning.
Tuesday’s game saw the Magic take the lead for much of the game. They had control, leading by as much as 12 points in the game and seemingly extending it back out every time the Knicks made a push.
The New York Knicks closed that gap in the fourth quarter for good, tying the game and making it a heated race to the end — the first time it seems since the buzzer-beating loss to the Denver Nuggets that the Orlando Magic played in such a back-and-forth affair late into the game.
This is a Magic team that is still learning how to win. They are still learning how to take a lead and manage and grow it to win comfortably. That was something Orlando just could not do.
The Knicks, hardly an experienced playoff team but with players like Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle who have been through postseason battles, made all those plays they had to make down the stretch. They played with poise and composure.
That is the experience the Magic need to learn though. And the only way they are going to get it is through experience. Until they get actual playoff experience, games like this are the next best thing. And they will have to go through their growing pains to understand what it takes.
"“It sucks to lose these ones because you feel like you are doing a good job all game,” Moe Wagner said after Tuesday’s loss. “You have to be so disciplined offensively because they pack the paint like that. It sucks because you feel like you are up the entire game and you lose. You have to embrace that as part of the growing process.”"
The Magic played well enough defensively — the Knicks shot 45.7 percent from the floor and posted an offensive rating of 112.1 points per 100 possessions in what was a slowed-down, drag-out game. But on a few key possession, Orlando gave up key offensive rebounds that set new York up for 3-pointers. The Knicks had 14 second-chance points on 11 offensive rebounds.
The three-point difference is probably the direct reason the Magic lost. Orlando could not hit an outside shot to save itself once again, making only 6 for 25 from the game.
To the Magic’s credit they did not settle nor did they pass up open shots. But like the loss to the Philadelphia 76ers last week, the Orlando Magic seemed to be pressing with each missed shot. They needed to make a shot and have the confidence to make a shot.
Markelle Fultz provided the biggest push late in the game. He was the one willing to drive to the hoop and finish with a flourish. Anytime the Magic needed a basket, Fultz was the one generating offense as the team seemed stagnant and unable to get the ball moving to the open man.
"“A game like that coming closer to the second half of the season, it’s very important and every possession matters,” Fultz said after Tuesday’s loss. “That’s how it is in the playoffs. I think we got a good experience of that tonight. We came up short, but I’m happy with the way we fought. But a couple of mistakes that cost us big down the stretch.”"
Fultz finished with 21 points and nine in the fourth quarter. No one else seemed able to get things going late. Yes, Franz Wagner had his turn with 12 of his 18 points in the first half and Paolo Banchero had his turn with 11 of his 16 in the third quarter. Things are all coming in bursts right now for this young team.
That is not sustainable, especially in close games. Although the improvement from the Magic’s defense certainly is encouraging. Orlando struggled to buckle down and get stops.
The Knicks scored 36 points in the fourth quarter. They made the plays down the stretch and kept putting pressure on the Magic’s defense. Orlando could scramble, but the team could not keep Brunson from hitting shots. Sometimes a good player makes tough shots. That is life in the playoffs too.
The Magic’s offense could not find the answers late. And it came down to that ball falling out on a layup. That is what feeds frustration. But that is where a team learns.
The Magic are ready for this kind of pressure and to test themselves under this pressure. They are clearly talented and capable enough to do it.
Orlando still sits three games out of the final Play-In Tournament spot. That is within striking range for sure. But still a tough task. Mosley said the team will have to take things one game at a time to make up that deficit. They cannot make up those games in one swoop.
But that is admittedly the goal. The team still believes it can do something special this year.
Now they have to learn how to play and succeed in this pressure. That is ultimately where they will get to and ultimately how they achieve that goal in the final stretch of the season.