The Orlando Magic could feel the desperation creep in with every quick shot and each time they seemed to ratchet up the pace.
The team knew how important this game was to their postseason chase. With a big four-game road trip ahead of them, a game against the second-worst team in the league was a big opportunity to set a positive tone and pick up at least one win right off the bat.
But every time they seemed to dig themselves out, they dug themselves deeper into the hole. They could not find the poise to get themselves back.
Every team in the NBA is going to have a good night. And the San Antonio Spurs certainly had an unusually strong night offensively and from beyond the arc.
But this was something more than that. This was a Magic team that got staggered by that confidence and seemed to abandon their defensive identity. They got into the kind of up-and-down game the Spurs want to play.
There was no catching up without maturity and poise. Two things the Magic have shown hints of throughout the season.
The Orlando Magic fell behind and could not get themselves back into the game as the San Antonio Spurs buried an immature Magic team that let a chance at a big win slip away.
It just was not there for this important game.
The Spurs hit seven of 11 3-pointers in the third quarter on their way to a franchise-record 22 3-pointers for the game in a 132-114 Spurs win at AT&T Center on Tuesday. They hit six of nine in the first quarter to set the tone for their win.
For a Magic team that has postseason aspirations — no matter how difficult those aspirations might be to achieve with so little time remaining this season and such a big hill to climb — this is a simply inexcusable effort. From the tip, the Magic were outplayed and just looked a step slow.
The Spurs made shots, but also were gifted easy shots with shoddy effort and execution all around.
Orlando’s offensive strengths — not to mention Paolo Banchero’s dominant 27-point performance — only kept the hope the Magic could find their defense, lock back in and erase the deficit for a win.
San Antonio is a team that gives a wide margin for error. But the Magic wasted that opportunity and the opportunity to get this needed win with their own poor effort. They could not disrupt the Spurs, letting them get into a rhythm early and never really stop.
“I think we were just late on a lot of our rotations,” Paolo Banchero said after Tuesday’s loss. “I think they did a great job moving the ball and not being stagnant. We were always a step behind on the defensive end. They were making everything, especially from three. When a team is hot like that, it’s hard to stop them. At the same time, you have to do a better job getting them out of rhythm at the start of the game. And we weren’t able to do that.”
The Spurs got far too many of the feet-set, kick-out threes that any NBA player is going to hit consistently when they are left fairly open. And once a team gets into a rhythm and gets confident, they are going to make shots.
San Antonio made 53.7 percent of the team’s 3-pointers, hitting a franchise-record 22 of 41 from deep. The Spurs became the second team to set their franchise record in 3-pointers against the Magic this season. The Sacramento Kings and their 23 3-pointers in the January loss at Golden 1 Center.
Orlando’s 3-point defense has been one of the team’s biggest weaknesses. When you are a team that gives up the second-most 3-point attempts per game in the league, you are going to have a few games where the other team gets hot and is able to beat you on it.
There is always a bit of shooting luck involved in this but this was as much about the Magic’s lack of physicality, defensive cohesion, communication and downright effort to close out.
The Spurs took advantage of a Magic defense that seemed uninterested in guarding them. It seemed the Magic took letting the Spurs, who rank 24th in 3-point field goal percentage and 24th in 3-pointers per game in the league, shoot to an extreme.
Any NBA team in the modern NBA is going to torch a team that leaves them this wide open. And the Spurs got consistent dribble penetration to set up shooters on the perimeter that the Magic were slow to rotate back to.
The question then is what were the Magic going to do about it? And that was an answer the team just could not find. This is where the team needed some maturity and poise that they are obviously still lacking.
“You’re not going to get it back in one possession,” Jamahl Mosley said after Tuesday’s loss. “I think that happens a ton in a game where you try to chase the threes that they are making back with a three and look to get aggressive. But we have to continue to stay and the course and do what we’re capable of doing and that’s ball movement. And then it’s got to be about getting stops. You have to get stops to get out and run.”
Orlando just did not have enough defense in it.
Every time the Magic seemed poised to make a run, they faltered and turned the ball over — only nine for 11 points, but they all felt big with how much the team had to make up. They had runs snuffed out by hurried shots and misses in the paint that led to run-outs. The Spurs’ 15 fast-break points all stung.
It came down to the basic things the Magic know they have to be about and they just were not. This was a game where Orlando was left staggered and abandoned the identity, taking the easy way out by trying to overdrive the offense.
The Magic could not make up the 3-point deficit. And the fact so many of the Spurs’ 3-point shots seemed so easy only made them more painful to watch.
Orlando left a lot on the floor. And that is the worst feeling in the world. Everyone in that locker room and everyone watching this Magic team knows what they are capable of. And Orlando fell far too short of that.
Doing that in such a big moment is humbling at least, embarrassing at most and frustrating for all. The team has to hope it is galvanizing so the team can erase it in their next game Thursday against the Phoenix Suns.
The Magic have had plenty of moments where their youth shows. They are still a young team. And every misstep and mistake right now is a lesson the team will learn and carry forward.
But this team knows what is at stake right now. And what this team has to learn most of all is who is going to step up to the challenge.
“This one stings,” Mosley said after Tuesday’s loss. “This one hurts because it is one we let get away from us. But you have to be able to move on next game and know what you can improve on and tighten up our defense. I don’t think we did a great job of defending the way we have shown we are able to defend.”
The Magic making the postseason was always a long shot. This team is still incredibly flawed as they showed in the clearest terms Tuesday night. This time is to discover how this team handles the pressure of a play-in chase and feels the weight of these losses.
This loss felt heavy for sure. It felt disappointing. And now the Magic need to grow up and show maturity coming out of this loss and get themselves right to close the season.