Orlando Magic are living, growing in close games

Cole Anthony stepped up to lead the Orlando Magic into the fourth quarter as they continue to learn from their close games. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports
Cole Anthony stepped up to lead the Orlando Magic into the fourth quarter as they continue to learn from their close games. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports /

The whiplash might be the thing that gets you. Young teams strive for consistency and often struggle to reach it. This Orlando Magic team is extremely young.

In even just the last week, they went from giving up big shots and struggling to get over the hump in a loss to the Phoenix Suns to making all the necessary shots and plays to hold off the LA Clippers to making critical decision errors and frustration mistakes in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

The story for much of this season — and certainly the second half of the season as the team got healthier and started to sniff the postseason chase — has been about the team learning how to put together wins. It has been a process that has been at times exciting and promising but also frustrating for the sometimes failure to take tangible steps.

The postseason seemed within reach and the team dropped some clear opportunities to make up ground.

But every game is a learning experience and the excitement the team seems to have at learning these hard lessons is evident.

The Orlando Magic have played a ton of close games this season and their growth in close games has been a big thing to monitor and develop.

And so as their season nears its conclusion, many of their games are seemingly starting to rhyme. They follow the same patterns and themes. The things that will preview the Magic’s next stage and where they will have to grow.

"“I think as a competitor you always want to play for something,” Moe Wagner said after Tuesday’s win. “Sometimes you forget on a team that’s very young and players that haven’t really had the opportunity in the league yet, they want to prove themselves every night. So there is a high level of competition of growth every night. That intensity and excitement is there anyway. Now that you are playing for something you want to create a culture where you are playing winning basketball. I think it matters to have the mentality of wanting to go somewhere and to have it right in front of us means a lot.”"

Orlando may not have enough to make the postseason this year, but everyone in that locker room knows it has the postseason in its future. Everyone understands they are going through the growing pains and trials that come with gaining experience.

They know they are in more close games now than they were in last year and they find themselves capable of winning games more and more.

That has been a key part of this team’s surge and the lessons the team still has to learn. And that is why that has been such an intense focus as the season comes to a close.

Orlando is 17-23 in clutch situations — when the game is within five points in the final five minutes — this season. Since Dec. 7, the Magic are 14-11 in clutch situations. Their success late in games is a big part of why the Magic have taken a step forward.

It is clear how important winning close games is for this team with more than half of their wins this season coming from clutch situations. They have played 25 of 48 games in clutch situtations since Dec. 7 when the team was finally showing some health and has gone 25-23.

In these pressure games where every win matters, these moments are important. Certainly for the postseason when games often turn on single plays and the ability to pull away or hit key shots — losing a four-game series by four points is still a sweep.

"“I think that’s the biggest thing just understanding that we try to put ourselves in a position to have a chance to win at the end of the game,” Markelle Fultz said after Tuesday’s win. “It’s all about execution and every possession matters. It’s fun to be in those positions and be in those situations but it is also even better to know that your teammates are getting more comfortable and having more fun to understand what to do in those moments.”"

The Magic have run the gamut this season from spirited comebacks to desperately holding onto the lead to blowing late leads and everything in between. The NBA season is varied and diverse enough for every team to experience everything a game can offer.

Even Tuesday’s game against the Washington Wizards — a 122-112 win that qualified for clutch statistics — saw this team experience and accomplish something new.

The Magic led by three with just 4:26 remaining after Bradley Beal split a pair of free throws. From there, the Magic took over. Coach Jamahl Mosley credited the team’s poise down the stretch and their ability to settle themselves. It showed in how they finished.

After Fultz missed a layup with 3:49 to play and a four-point lead, the Magic made their next four shots to close the game and scored — either a field goal or from the foul line — on seven of their final eight possessions. The only miss was a 24-second shot clock violation they took with the game already over on their final possession.

The mix of possessions was key here too. The Magic got to the line for six free throws in the final three minutes. They hit two 3-pointers — both off fantastic ball movement — capped off with Gary Harris’ sixth 3-pointer that shut the door finally on the game.

Sometimes the equation late in games is quite simple: It is about making shots.

It is a make-or-miss league after all. And the Magic have not always played with the confidence of a team that can win. The team certainly performs better with a lead than when they have to chase down a deficit late in games — their calm and poise holding the lead Saturday against the Clippers and Tuesday against the Wizards stands in stark contrast to Sunday’s loss to the Lakers.

For the season, the Magic have a 111.1 offensive rating in clutch situations. That is below their season average but 11th in the league. They have a 123.1 defensive rating in clutch situations (29th in the league) and 115.4 defensive rating (23rd in the league) since Dec. 7.

That is where their problem lies. And that was what was so impressive about Tuesday’s shutdown and win. Even against the Clippers on Saturday, the Magic had to keep hitting shots because they struggled to get stops. And the loss to the Lakers was all about the team’s inability to get stops on Austin Reaves down the stretch.

But Tuesday, the Magic got Kristaps Porzingis to turn the ball over on an offensive foul and miss two of his three shots. Orlando hitting shots put pressure on Washington to keep up and the team could not do so.

"“I think for us this season has been a lot of growth,” Cole Anthony said after Tuesday’s win. “We have actually had a lot of close games. We’ve lost some but we’ve learned from it this season and been able to improve on it. That was something we did tonight. We were able to execute down the stretch and that’s what helped us ultimately win this game. The more we’ve gotten into these close games, I feel the better we’ve gotten.”"

These are the situations and scenarios the Magic need to be in. It is one they have gotten better at and are succeeding in more. Just as they still have to learn how to keep their calm and poise when chasing a lead as much as they have it when they are holding onto one late in games.

But the only way to get better at these situations is to be in them. And that is the value of these final 10 games. The Magic want to put themselves in these situations so they can be more comfortable in them and ultimately succeed in them.

That is the thing that will carry over. And that is what the Magic want to see carry over. That is what the team wants to see grow into next season when these games will likely carry a whole lot more weight.

Next. Markelle Fultz is more than just a comeback story. dark

That is what the team is learning and growing from this year and why these late-game situations remain so important.