For the Orlando Magic, it’s the little plays that matter most for their growth

Markelle Fultz and the Orlando Magic continue to play hard but they are still missing little plays that cost them in the end. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Markelle Fultz and the Orlando Magic continue to play hard but they are still missing little plays that cost them in the end. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

118. 124. 38. Final. 131

Everyone tends to focus on the decisions late in games. For many, these highlights are the ones that determine wins and losses. Did the shot go in with 15 seconds left? Did they turn the ball over with less than two minutes to go?

The highlights will show the game virtually decided on Walker Kessler corralling a rebound over the undersized Magic with several players hanging onto his jersey. He made the basket and the foul to extend the lead to four points.

Lauri Markkanen put the finishing touches on a strong game by hitting a jumper over good defense to put the game finally out of reach and a two-possession game with time winding down.

These were the ultimately decisive plays in a 131-124 Utah Jazz win over the Orlando Magic at Amway Center on Thursday.

The late game struggles and the Orlando Magic’s inability to come all the way back will get their focus. But it was the little plays throughout the game the Magic could control that cost them.

Still, it is the little plays that built up throughout the game that added up to the loss. The late-game plays and decisions get all the attention, as they should. But it was how everything built to that point, putting the Magic in a position to have to chase the game late and scratch out points and stops that ultimately did not come.

Orlando could look to the end of the game. But it should also look to 11 missed free throws, poor starts to the first and third quarters and a poor finish to the second quarter that played just as big of a role in the finish to the game.

"“I really think it doesn’t come down to just that moment,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Thursday’s loss. “We got to the free throw line, but we’ve got to capitalize on those. We missed 11 free throws in a game, it is hard to overcome that. I thought we did a heck of a job competing, battling and fighting to get back. I think you have to give Utah a ton of credit, they got physical down the stretch and got some huge rebounds. I think that was a big portion of the game.”"

There will be plenty of questions about Mosley’s decision to go with a smaller lineup with Paolo Banchero at center. There will be questions about other rotation decisions — like Franz Wagner not coming back into the game until about three minutes remaining in the game.

There should be continued questions about the team’s overall defensive cohesion without Wendell Carter and how the team has seemingly collapsed on that end the last three games with Carter out with hip pain. Orlando again fell into a deep hole to start both the first and third quarters and gave up 55.7-percent shooting and 13-for-34 shooting from deep

Nobody thinks about the little plays that lead you up to that moment. The kind of plays in the course of a game that add up. The kinds of plays that could turn a close game into a double-digit deficit.

There are hard-luck things like when Goga Bitadze blocks a dunk that goes right back to Lauri Markkanen, allowing him to finish. There are the frustrating hustle plays that do not end up anywhere like when Cole Anthony dives on the floor and tries to feed Jalen Suggs from there but turns it over for an easy bucket for the Jazz.

Those are plays that happen that do not necessarily reflect poorly on the team. The Magic played hard and scrambled. It was hard for the team to say it did not play with effort. But even these add up too. Orlando had the effort, but too many plays tipped against them that cost them in the end.

The team could not put the pieces together long enough to string themselves into the lead.

"“We weren’t even bad today,” Jalen Suggs said after Thursday’s loss. “They hit a lot of tough shots. Ones that we can kind of live with. . . . They had a couple of offensive rebounds at tough times either when e we were on a run or helped spark and continue their run. We’re not doing bad still. We were a little lackluster for two minutes or three minutes when they went on a run and then we locked back in. We just have to stay locked in it for all 48.”"

That has been the struggle for the team in the last three games.

The Orlando Magic certainly played better than their previous two losses to the Portland Trail Blazers and Milwaukee Bucks. Even though this game had some stimilarities to those losses because of the inconsistent defense and free-flowing offense, Orlando still found itself able to operate and take some control of the game.

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But the Magic could not get over the hump due to miscues that were squarely in their control. Plays that had nothing to do with what the Jazz were doing defensively. This is the reason the loss hurt more than most.

There are the frustrating missed opportunities like when Anthony missed a take foul free throw or the 11 free throws the Maigc missed, including 12-for-21 shooting in the second half and 2-for-6 shooting in the fourth quarter of what ended up being a seven-point loss.

All these plays add up in the end.

These are things the Magic can control. And make too many of these seemingly small errors, and it turns into a mountain that is too big to climb.

"“I don’t think anybody is trying to do it, obviously,” Markelle Fultz said after Thursday’s game. “But if one guydoes it and then another guy does it, that’s what coach is talking about and it adds up. Just having the recognition of time and score and time and play. If we come down and have one or two turnovers to make sure we get a good shot.”"

But those plays make the task tougher. It makes the team have to focus in more and find their center again to get back into the game.

These are the plays that would not make hitting three straight triples in the middle of the quarter necessary to erase an eight-point lead. The plays that would not make it necessary for Markelle Fultz to score 14 of his 25 points in the third quarter to lead a charge back from 15 points down.

Perfecting these plays and winning these mini-battles are what it really takes to win and build consistency in the league. That is what the Magic are trying to put together.

Getting a 48-minute effort of intense focus is difficult for any team. No one can fully limit mistakes.

But what the Magic have been good at during this stretch is bouncing back and being resilient. They were certainly that in this game, reacting to those poor starts to each half and working their way back from a deficit. That part of this team has not gone away even if the team’s details have become noticeably looser and less consistent.

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It is still so much about the little things that are costing this team wins. Little plays that are so important. And so much of the Magic’s games come down to these little plays.

That is what the team has to learn.