Orlando Magic are learning to manage the game of runs

The Orlando Magic once again had a strong closing kick as they continue to learn how to close out games and win late. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic once again had a strong closing kick as they continue to learn how to close out games and win late. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

The NBA is a game of runs.

That is the cliche coaches often use to describe life in the NBA. The players and the offenses are so good that everyone is going to make a push toward the lead. Nothing ever feels certain or safe.

The teams that are able to grow and maintain leads in this league are the ones who can take the punches and have the poise to minimize damage and punch back.

That is not exactly how anyone would describe this young Orlando Magic team. It is perhaps the big thing that this team still has to learn. And Thursday’s 111-105 win over the New York Knicks was another lesson in this long process to turn this team into a winner.

But the Magic are getting there. They can see their maturity growing.

The Orlando Magic are starting to win games more consistently and their growth is evident with how they handle the end of games and put them away, battling the game of runs that is cliche in the NBA.

It was evident with four minutes to play after the Knicks cut the Magic’s lead to two points. The Magic needed a basket in a big way and they found their veteran for one.

Markelle Fultz drove to the lane to draw Immanuel Quickley in just enough before firing to Gary Harris for a three. Cole Anthony followed that up by digging out a rebound and draining a jumper. A two-point game was suddenly a seven-point game.

It is a game of runs. And this is a young team learning how to manage those runs and how to punch and counterpunch.

Something so simple is exceedingly complex and difficult to execute consistently. Even in these late-game situations, it is something the Magic are still working to improve on.

But here the Magic are, learning to take their punches — even some heavy ones — and punch back. They are slowly learning to stay even with a lead and take the desperate runs teams make to get back into the game. They are learning to make mistakes and to move on from them and find a way to recover.

This is what winning basketball looks like. It looks like a team that knows how to manage runs, hang on tight and make runs of their own. And then ultimately makes the big plays down the stretch. There have been hiccups along the way, but this is what the Magic are doing more and more of.

"“To be honest with you, how we defended,” Paolo Banchero said of how the team kept its poise late after Thursday’s game. “Guys hit big shots down the stretch. Cole, Gary and Wendell all hit threes that kept them at arm’s length. We were able to get stops when we needed them. it was an all-around good effort to close the game out.”"

That back and forth was the story of Thursday’s 111-105 win over the Knicks. The Magic raced out to a 19-point lead in the second quarter thanks to a 19-2 run. During that run, the Magic knocked down threes, forced turnovers and got out in transition.

It was the epitome of Magic basketball.

Nothing is ever easy though. The Knicks slowly whittled that lead down.

They cut it to eight by halftime. After the Magic extended the lead out to 19 again midway through the third quarter, the Knicks cut it down to eight again on an 11-0 run. They tied the game by the end of the third quarter.

In the fourth quarter, the Magic rallied to go up by eight with 8:13 to play. New York reeled it back into three points two minutes later and then to two points with four minutes to play.

The Orlando Magic again closed the game much the same way the team did against the Washington Wizards by making shots and keeping the Wizards at bay. It came with big shots from Paolo Banchero and then Cole Anthony to close the game and ultimately put it out of reach.

Coach Jamahl Mosley said the team discussed at halftime Thursday about winning quarters. And so after the Knicks won the third quarter, he was able to sit down and tell the team all they had to do was win the fourth quarter to get the win (obviously, it was a tie game).

Still narrowing the focus that much and creating those mini-games is an easy way for the team to put the past behind them and focus on the present to get the win. That is what the team is trying to do toward the end of the season.

"“I think staying resilient down the stretch is very important for us as a young team,” Wendell Carter said after Thursday’s game. “Sometimes including myself, we put our heads down when we don’t make a shot down the stretch or miss an assignment on defense. I feel like we have done a really good job moving onto the next play. We have been in a lot of really close games all year. I think we’ve done a really good job moving onto the next play. That’s a credit to everyone stepping up mentally.”"

As the season winds down, these are the lessons the Magic are trying to impart. As Mosley said after Thursday’s win, the only way to get better at closing out games and winning them is to do it. Experience is the only teacher.

Mosley said one area the Magic have made growth is identifying these situations in real-time in the huddle. That is a sign of the team’s added experience and maturity. And it is starting to show up on the court.

Ultimately experiences like the ones they have had in each game for the past two weeks is going to make this team better for the future, even with the team’s postseason hopes narrowing.

The things they are working on are surprisingly simple. Every one knows every game is a game of runs, that no lead is safe and that teams have to learn to manage and minimize the attacks on their lead.

But it is the surprisingly simple things that are the toughest to learn and that matter the most.

For a young team going through these experiences for the first time, it is worth noting when they start doing these things well. And that is what has stood out in the Magic’s last three wins.

From holding off the LA Clippers late with big shots in Los Angeles last Saturday to expanding a narrow lead Tuesday against the Washington Wizards at home to fending off each attack from the New York Knicks on Thursday, the Orlando Magic are getting better at this as shaky as they may still look at it. The results are starting to follow. And each game and finish may not look the same but what will ultimately matter is the result.

"“They keep showing it,” Mosley said after Thursday’s win. “I think that’s the sign of growth in these close games. they aren’t getting rattled. They understand how we have to play, getting stops first and then being able to get out and run and execute our offense.”"

The Magic are winning more of these close games now. And they are showing maturity and poise — at least when playing with the lead — that will help them evolve and develop next season.

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They are doing what all good teams eventually have to do: Manage that game of runs coaches keep going on about. Maybe there is something to that simple, cliched notion.