Orlando Magic running out of time to tip the scales in their favor

Jalen Suggs and the Orlando Magic are still working to scratch out the winning plays to tip the scales in their favor. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Jalen Suggs and the Orlando Magic are still working to scratch out the winning plays to tip the scales in their favor. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

Everyone in the NBA can say it is a make-or-miss league, but that does not make it any easier to swallow. That does not make it any easier to think about what could have been.

What would have happened if Jalen Suggs’ charge with 2:07 left to play stood? What would have happened if Paolo Bancher had hit his floater with 1:49 left to cut the deficit to one? What would have happened if Moe Wagner sank both free throws with 1:22 left in a three-point game? What would have happened if Nassir Little had not hit that three with 35.2 seconds left?

That does not even get into some of the little plays that happened throughout the end of the Orlando Magic’s 122-119 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers — like when Moe Wagner fought for a rebound and lost it out of bounds on a play clearly tipped out by a Trail Blazers player but the referees gave the ball back to the Blazers late in the game.

In a three-point game that was tied with less than a minute to play and essentially decided on a Little 3-pointer, one play can tip the scales.

The Orlando Magic are still learning how to win late in games. They are still struggling to tip the scales in their favor and make the last, critical winning play.

Every win or loss, teams can point to these kinds of 50/50 and decisive plays that decide games. The winning team can point to the plays they made and the losing team can point to the plays they did not make.

That is the nature of close games.

Repeatedly, the Magic are learning and figuring out how to make these plays. That is why these games are so valuable to the team.

When they are able to make them, it is a sign of the team’s progress and potential — just look at how Paolo Banchero finished off the New Orleans Pelicans last week. When they are not able to make them, it is a sign of how far this team still has to go.

"“They are great experiences for these guys to go through,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Sunday’s game. “Obviously not the result we wanted. we’re going to learn from this, take a look at it on film, see where we can get better, the possessions we can get back, understanding what we can do late game. I think our guys had a level of focus about them. But the one thing is you have to defend [Damian Lillard] without fouling as best you can.”"

Lillard’s brilliance was undeniable in scoring 41 points with the whole Magic defense focused on him. He made 17 of 20 free throws for the game, making up for a poor shooting game. And he had the understanding late in the game to target rookie Caleb Houstan and bait him into a key foul with 11.4 seconds left with the Magic needing a stop to keep it a one-point game.

These are the little play a veteran like Lillard understands that the Magic are still learning.

Sunday’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers felt similar to the home losses to the New York Knicks and Miami Heat before the All-Star Break. The exact kind of losses the team reviewed and studied coming out of the break to try to right the ship and make a postseason push.

There are positive signs on that front. The Orlando Magic gave up a late lead but made that last play to beat the Detroit Pistons on a game-winning dunk from Wendell Carter. They did the same to pull out the win against the Pelicans.

Each one of those games was far from perfect. But Orlando made those necessary plays.

Nobody is confusing the Pistons though with one of the elite teams in the league. And while the Pelicans remain in the postseason chase, they have been falling like a rock since Zion Williamson left the lineup with an injury.

The games against the Knicks, Heat and Trail Blazers all felt more significant because those are teams that are on the level the Magic want to be at. These are the teams the Magic have to beat to turn the tables and climb the standings.

Adding to that, losses Sunday from the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls (albeit to the Indiana Pacers) meant the Orlando Magic lost an opportunity to gain ground in the standings. The Magic still sit 3.5 games behind the final play-in spot. That is still tantalizingly close ground to make up. But the team is treading water.

To make up that ground is going to take finding those little, final, winning plays the Magic could not find in Sunday’s loss.

The late-game struggles this year are well-worn and written about.

Orlando is 14-20 in clutch situations (a game within five points in the final five minutes). That is not anything special. It is the 20th-most clutch wins in the league and the 15th-most clutch games played so far this season.

Obviously, this is an area where the team can improve though.

The Magic have a -14.7 net rating in 114 clutch minutes including a 120.6 defensive rating. All the defensive progress the Magic have made goes out the window late in games.

It is quite simple that if the Magic were 17-17 in clutch situations instead of 14-20, the team would be a half-game out of the postseason. And the Orlando Magic can look to late-game gaffes in losses to the Sacramento Kings (back in November, remember?) and Miami Heat to find those missed opportunities that could have flipped their season further around.

The larger point remains the team is looking for the little plays to tip them over the top. And that can be things as little as grabbing a rebound at the right time and avoiding fouling at the right time.

A game is not decided in the final moments. It builds to the final two minutes. Orlando made its bed with the fouling and struggles to keep Portland out of the paint. That is something the team will continue to work on.

But the Magic are also undoubtedly playing to the end of these games. And whether they are able to climb the standings and make a play-in push will come down to whether they can turn these kinds of losses into wins.

That is not what happened against the Blazers. The Magic did not make losing plays that cost them the game. They just did not make enough of the winning plays. The scales did not tip in their balance. And so Orlando was left searching for answers knowing how close the team is.

Next. Paolo Banchero is running away with Rookie of the Year. dark

The thing is a win and a loss all count the same no matter the margin. And that is what hurts the most as the Magic try to make up ground.