Orlando Magic’s tall hill to climb remains ahead of them

The Orlando Magic are walking a narrow path to victory and an uphill climb to get back to the postseason. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic are walking a narrow path to victory and an uphill climb to get back to the postseason. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports /

38. Final. 121. 100. 108

This felt like a big game.

Fans and the media noted the Orlando Magic could pass the Indiana Pacers for 12th place in the Eastern Conference with a win. That would be a small but important moment for the team’s eagerness to join the Play-In race more seriously. Every game feels pressure and intensity.

The Magic certainly played that way early. They certainly scrambled and fought to keep themselves in the game at least early. In this featherweight bout, the Magic took their punches and dished them out.

They rolled with losing Wendell Carter to foul trouble early and scrambled to limit the Pacers’ three-point shooting. No one should fault the Magic’s effort or intensity as they tried to grind out a win.

The formula to a win though was always an uphill climb in a game like this. The Magic were struggling to keep the pressure on offensively and their defense was slipping. It was a matter of time before the dam broke.

With each 3-pointer the Pacers hit in the third quarter, it finally did. The Magic could not claw their way uphill anymore. And in a game that felt so critical — maybe not to the coaching staff that always has to stay so even-keeled but certainly to the players and the fans in the sold-out Amway Center.

The Orlando Magic play every game at a major disadvantage from beyond the arc. And they walk a narrow path to try to make that up. Sometimes the gameplan just collapses under that weight and pressure.

Everyone is eager to see this young Magic team take its next steps. But its next steps still comes down to simple math.

This version of the Orlando Magic have to find a way to make up for their lack of 3-point shooting. And even with an improved defense, if the other team is hitting, it becomes really difficult.

The Pacers made 9 of their 15 3-pointers in the second half and smothered the Magic in the paint en route to a 121-108 victory. Orlando’s ascent up the standings will have to wait as the team has to learn to stick to its principles under pressure.

The Magic simply could not get that breath above water to steady themselves and the deficit became too deep.

"“I think we let our offense impact our defense,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Saturday’s game. “That’s not really like us. It’s the first time that’s happened in a while. We will shake this one off and look at it. We give Indiana a ton of credit with the way that they played with a ton of energy. We have to shake this one off because we have a road trip coming up.”"

The loss feels weighty. And it highlighted a lot of issues that seem to persist with the team.

The Magic have done well to keep their defense consistent in the last few months. But eventually, things break down. It is hard to sustain consistency when shots will not fall. The game can sometimes feel that simple.

It is a make-or-miss league.

There were moments that felt backbreaking and just highlighted the random nature of momentum and games. Like the third quarter play when Franz Wagner missed a wide-open three in the corner that led to the Pacers running out and setting up Tyrese Haliburton for an open three.

It simply highlights the margin for error and the different approaches to the game. And in the modern NBA, the Magic’s personnel and the way they have to win just leave them with an uphill battle.

The Magic made only 6 of 29 3-pointers. And while Orlando did a good job not settling for threes, shooting below even their meager 3-point average, the difference was felt. The Pacers hit 15 3-pointers for the game.

Typically Orlando makes up the difference in its poor 3-point shooting with free throws and points in the paint. The Magic could only check off one of those marks as they took 38 free throws, making 32.

Instead, Orlando got outscored in the paint 62-58 and made only 29 of 54 shots. That is still a better-than-50-percent showing, but the Magic were struggling to get to the interior and make shots consistently.

The story of the game, as has been the story it seems for the last decade, is the Magic’s inability to score consistently. And in this instance, the defense collapsed under the frustration.

"“Something happened that we can’t let happen,” Franz Wagner said after Saturday’s loss. “After a couple of shots that we miss or not getting what we want, we let it affect how we play on the other end and that’s when they made their run.”"

Sure, Wagner had a solid game with 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting. And Paolo Banchero even had some bright moments with 19 points on 6-for-12 shooting, marking his first game shooting 50 percent or better since the Jan. 30 win over the Philadelphia 76ers and just his third such game in his last 17 games.

There were some big offensive moments. And maybe the Magic needed to lean on their stars more to generate some push.

Then again, they just had so many key players unable to hit shots.

Wendell Carter went 1 for 11 in 18 foul-plagued minutes. Markelle Fultz only managed 18 points on 6-for-14 shooting. But he was only 4 for 8 in the restricted area. Jalen Suggs went 4 for 12 and Cole Anthony just 2 for 7.

Gary Harris went an icy 1-for-7 from beyond the arc in a 1-for-8 shooting night. Carter missed all five of his 3-pointers.

There was no one who seemed able to create that offensive push the team needed. And eventually the frustration of the team’s poor shooting and turnovers — 14 turnovers for 17 points with each one feeling bigger than the last six for 10 points in the critical third quarter.

Orlando could not create easy opportunities either, getting outscored 24-15 on fast-break points. The easy baskets just would not come.

Eventually, the team let go of the rope. And there was no making up the ground that a 3-point shooting team like the Pacers can put on if the team is not dialed in on both ends.

Every loss under the pressure the Magic are facing to make up the now-4.5 games between them and the final play-in spot is going to highlight the team’s weaknesses.

It is going to be an uphill climb. It was always going to be so.

"“There is always a sense of urgency when you have a chance to get a playoff spot,” Banchero said after Saturday’s loss. “We’ve talked about it as a team. It’s definitely in the back of our minds.”"

It is an uphill climb for the Magic every game too. They are a non-3-point shooting team in a league that relies on 3-point shooting more and more. The Magic struggle to make up this gap. They take the fourth-fewest 3-pointers in the league and give up the second-most attempts.

Sometimes that math just does the team in. And on a night when Orlando could not hit any shots — even the open ones — and Indiana hit its three-pointers in bunches. The Magic did not make up the difference.

But this is the challenge of every game. This has been the biggest challenge of the season. How do the Magic make up for their outside shooting? How do they stay in games?

That formula has been well-worn this year. It is about the team’s ability to win the paint and get to the line. It is about the team’s ability to force turnovers and get out in transition.

This is a narrow path to walk. This season has always been a narrow path to winning even with the improvements the team has made.

And it has been an uphill climb too. The Magic have had to play a style that requires a lot of things to go right for them. The team is still looking for that half-court creator and consistency they will need to make some real gains.

Next. Playbook: How the Orlando Magic lock down the paint. dark

The team is not going to let one bad game get to them. Or at least it should not.

As important as this game felt, it was not the be-all, end-all for the season. The Magic still have a lot they can accomplish and a lot they can learn. Including how they can walk this narrow path and continue to make this long climb up.