Orlando Magic’s win/development balance tipping toward winning

Franz Wagner helped spearhead a wild rally that put the Orlando Magic in a surprising spot to win Tuesday. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
Franz Wagner helped spearhead a wild rally that put the Orlando Magic in a surprising spot to win Tuesday. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic do not stop. They do not quit. And they never seem quite out of it.

That was the going thought as the crowd at FedExForum in Memphis got tighter and more nervous as Tuesday’s game wound down.

The Magic slowly whittled down what once seemed like an inevitable loss, taking a 23-point lead down to single digits. That kind of run even with so little time remaining is apt to make any team nervous and apt to make mistakes. The question is whether the Magic would pounce.

Markelle Fultz certainly did, helping execute a trap and picking off the usually steady-handed Tyus Jones as he tried a spin move to get away from pressure in the backcourt. Fultz easily stole the ball and cut the deficit to five with less than a minute to play.

As the Magic fought for their lives, Wendell Carter dug out an offensive rebound and found Paolo Bnachero who quickly fired the ball to Franz Wagner. He froze the closing-out defense with a pump fake to get a blow-by and then buried a three. It was a three-point game.

The Magic got some fortune with Desmond Bane splitting his free throws. But Cole Anthony stepped out of bounds as the team tried to execute a handoff and the Magic had run out of time.

The Orlando Magic are running out of time to make a final postseason push. But the lessons they have learned have begun to shift the team’s focus. Winning is easily the most important thing to this young franchise.

That is a perfect statement for their postseason hopes in the present — the Magic digging themselves a deep hole early in the game trailing by 17 after the first quarter and then rallying feverishly when the odds were already too slim.

But this game was also a statement of how much the bar has raised.

"“That’s been this group all year,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Tuesday’s game. “The ability to compete night in and night out no matter what’s happening. Down 23, not hanging our heads but continuing to fight. That first quarter got us. Winning every other quarter after that, being able to do it defensively first.”"

The Magic have had to do a tricky balancing act.

This season has been about growth and development first and foremost. Coach Jamahl Mosley has often made decisions that leaned toward development and a bigger picture than on always winning the game in front of him.

The team has still picked up wins in the process. But they have definitely left some on the board.

This has been the difficult balance of the season. And as the season winds down the expectations have raised again. And it is a sign of just how well the Magic have succeeded in growing their young team and raising expectations.

They have graduated from the moral victory but they still show growth in every moment on the floor. And as the team shifts toward winning more, these lessons will prove more valuable.

Tuesday’s game was again a point of teaching for a team desperate to get some wins. But the team adjusted and rallied to make some serious gains with Franz Wagner leading a wild fourth-quarter charge.

It was a growing experience. But also one that felt empty without the result.

In October this kind of spirited comeback would be a testament to the team’s growing character and their potential to keep growing. This would have been a sign that the team can compete at this level against playoff-caliber teams.

This is March though. The Magic have proven themselves to be a competitive team — going 27-24 in their last 51 games — and they have put themselves at least in the periphery of the postseason chase.

They have proven themselves against strong teams throughout the NBA. They have pointed to their bright future.

That has inevitably raised the standards for the team. This has raised the expectations for what this team can do.

Moral victories are not victories anymore if they ever were. And what the Magic are trying to establish the rest of the season is that winning is still important and something to build on for their future.

The Magic expect to win.

Yet, as has been the case all season, so much of this season is about growth and development too. This has been a tricky balance for the team to manage. They are trying to win and teach their players the right way to approach games, but they are also giving them the space to grow and make mistakes.

"“It’s been very valuable just learning how to manage games, how to come down wanting to put good possessions together at the end of the game,” Paolo Banchero said after Tuesday’s game. “The past couple of months we have been in a lot of those late-game situations. I think we have learned a lot and we have to keep learning and keep pulling out wins.”"

It is why the team goes back to Banchero when he struggles with his decisions late in game, hoping he will make better decisions with experience. The same thing for Wagner — who had the return of his “Fourth-Quarter Franz” moniker with 16 of his 25 points in the final quarter.

Increasingly though, the team is getting judged on results. The Magic need to produce and they need to win. And that is the shift that has started to occur.

It has occurred because there is pressure to make the postseason as the season winds down — pressure the Orlando Magic have at times risen to like during the recent three-game homestand and at times have not risen to like in the home loss to the Indiana Pacers shortly after the All-Star Break and Tuesday’s game.

This is the yin and yang and the push and pull of the season. The Magic are trying to win. They are trying to build the right habits and put pressure on this team. But they are also still trying to grow. They are trying to learn from their mistakes and get better.

Tuesday’s loss was disappointing because it puts the Magic further on the brink of postseason elimination. It was a disappointing because the magic played well and put themselves in a position to win minus a 17-point deficit they dug in the first quarter.

It was encouraging because of how the team continued to fight, continued to play well and continued to learn. But that is not enough anymore. The team expects to win.

Orlando Magic should aim to win to end their season. dark. Next

And the shift has already begun on what the team will focus on as the season nears its end and we look ahead to the 2024 season.