Before the season began, it was clear one thing would determine whether the Orlando Magic had an impressive and surprising season or would be a young team simply taking their lumps.
Nobody expects a young team to be perfect late in games. They are going to take their lumps and learn hard lessons. But those are still lessons they need to learn. And the hope is they improve enough to show some real progress.
Did the Magic learn how to avoid getting fouled when down three? It certainly was not the same thing that happened in the loss to the Portland Trail Blazers when Portland played and won the foul game to maintain a three-point lead and win at the Amway Center two weeks ago.
Did the team still execute and make plays? Orlando’s finishing needs a lot of work.
The Orlando Magic again rallied to give themselves a chance to win the game. But miscues down the stretch cost Orlando and left them scrambling and hoping to get back in for a win.
The final play is the one that will get a lot of attention. With the Orlando Magic down by three points with six seconds left, knowing the Suns were going to foul, the Magic inbounded it to Franz Wagner who quickly fed it to Paolo Banchero.
Banchero rose up for a shot before the defense to close in on him. Josh Okogie closed him down though, blocking the shot at the top of Paolo Banchero’s jump and forcing the ball into the backcourt where the Suns could run the clock out without taking the foul.
Another hard lesson learned for a young team. This time in a 116-113 loss to the Suns at Footprint Center on Thursday.
That was one of several clear late-game miscues that kept this team from taking the important step and securing a win — in a game where the Magic looked to be making several key little mistakes and had to climb uphill for almost the entire game.
The Magic fought all the way back from a 12-point deficit and tied the game with 5:52 to play on a Franz Wagner three-pointer. Orlando was not able to tie the game the rest of the way, though.
Okogie answered with a 3-pointer on the next possession. Then Devin Booker hit a mid-range jumper to make it a five-point Phoenix lead. A Wendell Carter illegal screen separated those two plays — the 16th of 18 turnovers in the game for the Magic (we will get to those two).
Orlando was able to fight back and stay in the game. Banchero cut the deficit to two on a 3-pointer. But then it became about playing catch up.
The Magic cut the deficit to two points with a pair of Banchero free throws (a tough ask on a night when the game was played with a ton of physicality and precious few fouls and free throws). But Chris Paul got to work and hit a pair of step-in mid-range jumpers as he worked his way to his spots.
Still, Orlando fought back. Wendell Carter hit a three only for Chris Paul to answer with a jumper to extend it back to three with 1:18 to play.
Then the miscues happened.
Banchero turned the ball over in transition. The Magic were able to bounce back and force a Suns turnover. But Franz Wagner tried to throw an alley-oop to Paolo Banchero, but he could not corral it over the defense and the ball trickled out of bounds.
On the next possession, with the Magic down three Markelle Fultz stole it from Devin Booker. But Orlando could not get a clean look in transition and the Suns began the foul game. Orlando was not able to get themselves all the way back.
It was those mistakes — not that the Suns did not make any down the stretch — that hurt most. The two or three turnovers in a tight game that cost the team opportunities in a tight game.
Those plays are the real reason the team lost the game, not the blocked shot from Banchero late. They lost because they turned it over 19 times for 17 Suns points.
They lost because of moments big and small when the team lost its focus — like when Cole Anthony fouled Cameron Payne to end the first quarter to give up a four-point play or Markelle Fultz fouled Josh Okogie on a half-court heave to end the first half and give up three free throws.
They lost because they struggled on the glass, giving seven in the game for 17 second-chance points.
"“It’s not just about that one play,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Thursday’s loss. “It’s not about that possession there. It’s fouling when we don’t need to foul. Fouling shooters. It’s little situations like that we need to keep understanding those are the possession that get you into these end-of-game situations.”"
All these things, as they have all year, add up. The Magic are not always as dialed in as they need to be with their margin for error still fairly small. Even as they show themselves capable of winning these games.
It is about understanding that every possession — from the first quarter to the final quarter — matters.
But in the end, closing games is indeed all about poise. And the Magic continue to make mistakes late.
Orlando entered Thursday’s game with a 15-21 record in clutch situations — when the game is within five points in the final five minutes. Their defense struggles a ton in these moments, giving up 122.7 points per 100 possessions. On top of this, they have a 108.3 offensive rating and a 13.5-percent turnover rate.
The turnovers late in this game were unusual. But the poor defense to help the Magic get the stops they would need to get over the hump and take the lead was not. Neither was the Magic’s search for offense in these late-game situations.
When the games get tight, this is where Orlando shows its youth, immaturity and lack of poise the most. The Magic likely can feel this pressure in ways an experienced team like the Suns do not (although the Suns are just 12-16 in close-game situations entering Thursday).
It is easy to see Orlando pressing and trying to force its play. The team is also heavily relying on a rookie in Banchero to lead the way. Mistakes are to be expected.
And there were plenty of them Thursday night.
But this is also the difference between the Magic being deeper into the postseason chase and where they are now. How the Magic performed and played in close games was always going to determine whether they would be able to take that leap.
It is no surprise the Magic are struggling in this area. They need the experience to play better in these circumstances and the Magic have shown enough growth in reading similar situations to believe things will be better.
But as with all things the Magic do, their success starts with themselves. It starts with their poise and ability to execute late that will flip things around and help them win more and climb the standings.
This has been a year of taking and learning these hard lessons. As frustrating as it is to watch. But the team still needs to gain this experience and learn to find their poise through it.