Orlando Magic Playbook: Orlando Magic will learn from close-game struggles

Feb 27, 2023; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero (5) passes the ball against New Orleans Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas (17) and guard Josh Richardson (2) during the second half at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 27, 2023; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero (5) passes the ball against New Orleans Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas (17) and guard Josh Richardson (2) during the second half at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports /

The NBA world is talking about the shot that saved the Boston Celtics’ season this Sunday.

After losing a 10-point lead against the always hard-charging Miami Heat, the Boston Celtics trailed by one point with three seconds to play. The Celtics, who looked flustered and unsure what to do through much of the final four minutes, again faltered. They could not get the ball to Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, with Derrick White inbounding ot Marcus Smart.

Smart hoisted a quick three to try to give his team a chance at a putback. That proved to be the right call with White crashing the glass and tipping the ball back in with 0.1 seconds left and the win, extending the series to a Game 7.

The final moments of that game showed the full chaos that can be late-game situations. And late-game situations in playoff games are even more pressure-packed. It was also a sign of how many mistakes could get made as both teams struggled with shot-making — Duncan Robinson missed two huge three-pointers that would have made the ending less stressful.

As much as close games do not matter in the long run — in the regular season, they are essentially toss ups and good teams find a way to avoid them and their variability — they matter a ton in playoff races and playoff series. When one game can flip between seeding or flip a series — in Saturday’s case from being over or going to a Game 7 — execution late in games matters.

No doubt, a young team like the Orlando Magic is still learning how to play and win these kinds of games.

Clutch situations have helped define the postseason in the NBA. The Orlando Magic are learning how to manage these situations and that was a big part of the lessons of this season.

They had their own putback moment this season in a game against the Detroit Pistons. Paolo Banchero had his hands on the ball to end the game and drove to the basket. He missed the layup but Wendell Carter followed up with a massive dunk and a huge victory.

That game itself showed all the promise and potential of the Magic as a closing team. Orlando led by four with 1:36 to play with Banchero missing a shot with 36 seconds to play to set up Jaden Ivey’s game-tying three.

But the most important thing about this sequence for the team’s future was that specific struggle, especially for their future star in Banchero.

Coach Jamahl Mosley has not hidden he is already thinking about how his team will perform in the playoffs. He has started showing them clips from the postseason and is already thinking about what his team will need to prepare for.

Often some of the criticisms Mosley faced through this season was his focus on some long-term thinking over short-term thinking. And his approach to clutch plays was certainly part of this.

The Magic were more than willing to let Banchero especially experiment with how to perform in late-game situations. They wanted him to get these important late-game reps.

The numbers bear that out too.

Banchero scored a team-high 91 points in clutch situations — when the game is within five points in teh final five minutes. However he shot only 41.4 percent (24 for 58) and dished out only nine assists. That gives him a true shooting percentage of 58.2 percent thanks to 46 free throw attempts in clutch situations.

Franz Wagner certainly earned his “Fourth-Quarter Franz” moniker, leading the team in clutch field goal attempts. He shot just 38.8 percent (26 for 67) including that notable miss against the Indiana Pacers very early in the season. He made only 6 of 30 3-pointers in clutch situations, scoring a total of 75 points.

From an efficiency standpoint, the best player down the stretch of games was Markelle Fultz. He was third in total points with 72 and shot 59.1 percent (26 for 44) and 17 assists.

If these two plays from late in games shows anything it shows the Magic are very determined to use the high pick and rolls with their two big men to create mismatches and put pressure on the defense going downhill.

Both Banchero and Wagner are not great at passing in these situations. If the team were focused on winning games immediately, the option of having Fultz to pull up from mid-range or attack the basket and kick back out.

But this is the exact thing the team wants these young players to learn.

Probably the biggest moment of growth for Banchero came in the Orlando Magic’s win at the New Orleans Pelicans. In that game, Banchero scored six points in the final two minutes to sinch the game away.

And unlike previous late-game possessions, what stood out was how comfortable and confident Banchero looked.

And the Magic had enough trust and faith to let him make these decisions. This was a true star moment for the young player and enough to give the team confidence in what he will be able to create in these late-game situations.

This kind of experience is exactly what the Magic needed to see from their rookie. And it is why that despite his inefficiencies, they kept turning back to him late in games. He is making his mistakes now so he can have breakthrough moments like this one.

Orlando as a team had its struggles late in games to be sure.

The Magic finished 19-25 in clutch situations this year, playing the ninth-most clutch games this year. That is a statement of their competitiveness this year. But it is also a statement of how far the team still has to go in big-game situations.

The Magic had the second-worst defensive rating in clutch situations at 120.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. So if it felt like the Magic gave away a lot of leads late or struggled to get stops late in games, the numbers support that feeling.

Orlando was 10th however in offensive rating in clutch situations at 111.1 points per 100 possessions. So the use of Fultz, Wagner and Banchero seemed to be relatively effective when games got tighter. The Magic just need to bring their defense with them.

So it is worth looking at two high-profile clutch moments — the two games at Amway Center against the Miami Heat.

In the first meeting in February, the Magic led 97-93 with 50 seconds left in regulation. That is when the offense dried up and the Heat were able to make shots. It started with Jimmy Butler hitting a quick layup and then continued with Gary Harris missing a three and Wendell Carter turning the ball over.

Gabe Vincent hit a pair of free throws to tie the game. But Banchero did not come up big in this moment in a nightmare finish to the game for him.

Still it is easy to see all the potential Banchero has to finish these games off. On the move, defenses do not know how to handle his size. And he is able to get downhill with so much speed and power that these kinds of shots keep popping up for him.

The other part of this is understanding what a good shot is. In the second game against the Heat a month later, Banchero settled for pull-up jumpers, missing both, that kept the door open.

This is a make or miss league and if those shots go in as they did against the Pelicans, then it is a different story. But this is a season for that trial and error.

The shot clock is winding down here. And a drive may not be advisable since there is no one rotating to the top of the key to get back. But with the lead and some time remaining, smarter shot and not settling for a three even with five to go on the shot clock would have helped close the game.

Regulation in that game ended with Butler hitting a three to send the game to overtime. From there, Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter spearheaded a run to make sure the Magic secured the game.

This was a season for Banchero to experience these decisions and these moments. Orlando needs its young star to know this balance and to feel this pressure.

He certainly got his reps with them. And that will ultimately serve him well.

In the end, the Magic showed a lot of their youth in these close games. Especially on defnese, they showe dhow shaky they are with closing games and how much the pressure got to them. This was a season to make some of those mistakes and get more comfortable learning to close these games out. It was hardly perfect.

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But like with giving the ball to Banchero, it will all help the team grow and develop when it is time to do this for real in the postseason. That was a big part of the lesson from this season.