The Orlando Magic had fought their way back to take a one-point lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers. They knew their postseason hopes hung in the balance with just one more loss. The Magic were not letting go of that dream.
It would come down to the final moments of the game and whether the Magic would be able to make a play. On the other end was Donovan Mitchell and his 40-point scoring streak.
The answer to what would happen next was a lesson for a young team that has grown up a lot but still has a big hill to climb. This is not their time to dance in the postseason.
Mitchell put on a dazzling display, answering the Magic’s pushes to retake the lead late in the fourth quarter. He hit a pair of jumpers over Jalen Suggs with just less than two minutes to play, ignoring Suggs’ all-defensive team-level play to put the Magic away and give the Cavaliers a six-point lead.
That was all Cleveland would need to eliminate Orlando from postseason contention with a 117-113 win in front of a sold-out Amway Center.
The Orlando Magic got a taste of playoff basketball facing an elimination situation and watching an individual player brilliantly take them down in the final minutes and possessions.
Mitchell’s individual brilliance was undeniable — 43 points, 15-for-23 shooting and 5-for-9 shooting from deep. It was ultimately decisive as the Magic missed several shots to keep up with Paolo Banchero missing a wild take to the basket that did not earn a foul call and Markelle Fultz missing a trusty jumper from the elbow.
But they can learn from the Cavaliers’ young foundation. The Magic can learn how to reach their next level by learning how the Cavaliers attack in isolation.
The Cavaliers have developed Darius Garland into an NBA All-Star scorer and acquired an isolation shot-maker in Donovan Mitchell. The Magic will head into next season looking to develop more on the offensive end and further establish go-to scorers among the team’s core.
While team chemistry and cohesiveness on offense are vital tools for NBA teams, sometimes isolation scoring talent overpowers team basketball. The issue with the NBA is that sometimes offense does not have to be a team sport, and individual talents can score at will without needing other players to be involved.
Entering Tuesday’s game, the Magic average 6.8 isolation possessions per game according to NBA.com’s tracking stats. However, they are the third-worst team in efficiency, scoring just 0.83 points per possession on isolation plays.
For comparison, the Cavaliers average 7.0 isolation possessions per game and score 0.91 points per possession on those plays.
It is clear that this has to be a part of the team’s attacking diet and they have to be better when they try to clear out and let their best players work.
This is where the “3-and-D” player comes into play. If an NBA team has a go-to scorer, the other players on the court can spot up on the three-point line, creating space for the scorer. The 3-and-D does not need to create, but just be shot-ready so defenders cannot help guard the primary scorer.
In the game against Cleveland, Mitchell was the go-to scorer and recorded his fourth 40-point game in a row. Down the stretch of the game, Cleveland cleared out their players on one side of the court and gave Mitchell the top of the key. He scored three straight baskets to seal the victory.
Entering Tuesday’s game, Mitchell scores 1.09 points per possession on 2.4 isolation possessions per game. That is some solid efficiency.
By contrast, Banchero scores 0.86 points per possession on 3.2 isolation possessions per game. That inefficiency is expected for a rookie.
The Magic are young and exceeded their timeline as a team this season. The team should anticipate that one or more of its young stars will reach another level on offense relatively soon.
This is the next step for Orlando and propels them into serious championship contention for years to come.
Shot-making is one of the most important skills in the NBA, and the Magic do a great job distributing the basketball and playing through each other.
But they need a go-to scorer in clutch moments, and while Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner seem to be the obvious selections to take on that role, Markelle Fultz had a statistic recently surface that should not go unnoticed.
Fultz has the best field goal percentage in the clutch so far this NBA season at a 60-percent clip. That is almost unbelievable that he can achieve this accolade while only three seasons ago he could barely shoot the basketball. Fultz gets to his spots and rises over defenders for smooth mid-range jump shots and attacks the basket with crafty and efficient finishes.
All three of these players can play off each other and elevate their game. But in crunch time, one player needs to take on the role as the clutch shot maker. These roles will start to develop even more so next season as much of the roster will have played several games together.
The Magic roster is already deep with talent, and they will look to fill holes this offseason to start competing from game one of next year. The team is only going to improve, and the question is, who takes that next step to super-stardom as an isolation player?
It will be quite the thrill, and the time is coming. Glimpses have been clear throughout the season from the Magic’s star trio of Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero, Markelle Fultz and even Cole Anthony.
Roles on the team will continue to take shape, and roles are important for a team with playoff aspirations. Orlando has several scoring options, and individual players will step up in clutch situations to further solidify their position as the go-to scorer.
Coach Jamahl Mosley will set his players up for success, and there is an argument the Magic have more room to grow than any other NBA team at this point. The next step is developing a high-caliber NBA offense that can space the floor and give room for isolation plays by their stars.
The Orlando Magic are on a similar path to playoff contention as the Cleveland Cavaliers were. Orlando will look to solidify their rotation to complement the core and create a more efficient offense.
While the Magic have been playing effective team basketball, having a go-to scorer in clutch moments can make all the difference. The NBA is a league where team cohesiveness can shine, but having a go-to scorer can take a team to the next level and win basketball games.
The Magic have a promising foundation and the resources to improve, and it will be exciting to see which of their young stars will step up to become a superstar isolation player.