Paul George went 2 for 10 in the first half of the LA Clippers’ game against the Orlando Magic. It was the kind of ugly half the Magic are quickly learning they need to play. One where they frustrate their opponents with tough defense and disruptive defense. They can be a tough nut to crack.
Right now, Orlando prefers slowed-down games (the team entered Tuesday’s game 29th in pace)
But George is the kind of player who can be a nutcracker, so to speak. The kind of player who you can throw two or three players on and double teams and he will just rise up and make shots. When he finds a rhythm, there is not much a defense can do, even good defenses like the Magic’s defense or good defenders like Franz Wagner.
Orlando let George find that rhythm in the third quarter. And the Clippers, facing a frustrating and ugly game, found a way to push through. Paul George’s run to take over the game and propel the Clippers in the lead led to Russell Westbrook attacking the basket and expanding that lead.
The Magic simply had no answer. They could not find their offensive groove as they struggled to an overall offensive rating of 98.1 points per 100 possessions. The offense just was not working.
The Orlando Magic saw what stardom looked like as Paul George took control of the game in the third quarter and pushed his team to a win. It is something the Magic’s young stars are not doing.
Orlando could not go to the players it needs to attack. Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner essentially disappeared when the team needed the stability to score and fight back.
Banchero and Wagner combined for 29 points and 11 for 26 shooting, in what turned out to be a decent shooting night compared to how poorly the team has shot the ball this season. But they were absent as the Clippers made their big run.
With the Magic struggling to find offense consistently, they could not turn to the players they should be counting on most.
Not in the way the Clippers were able to at the critical moment.
"“Great players are going to make shots,” Jalen Suggs said after Tuesday’s game. “They are going to make some contested ones. They did a great job coming out and hitting first in the third quarter which we had to respond to. We will. We did a great job on them in the first half. It’s just about sustaining it and being consistent. They made some tough ones. PG got going. With great players like that, it gets hard when they get hot.”"
That is the biggest point perhaps because the Magic are at least tangentially thinking about April and May. What will this team need to do to compete in the playoffs? That is what the ultimate question for this season will be.
Undoubtedly a big part of that is having star players elevate their games and beat strong defenses. They find a way to pace their team even when the team is struggling. They know to raise their games when the moment calls for it.
This was a moment where Banchero and Wagner’s absence was felt in a major way. While the Clippers were pulling away, the Magic could not find their offensive rhythm. This is not fully on them, but the Magic need some player to take the reins and calm the team down. That was one of the struggles with the Magic’s late-game loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday.
Perhaps that is Markelle Fultz, the calming presence at point guard. But eventually it needs to be the two star players. That is what Orlando is trying to build those two players to become.
In the end, the Clippers’ two stars for this game (Kawhi Leonard was still very quiet) accounted for 30 of their 41 points in that tell-tale third quarter. They combined to shoot 12 for 15 from the floor and George made four of five 3-pointers.
That was the difference in the game. Orlando had one terrible quarter shooting 7 for 18 overall and giving up nine of the Clippers’ 17 fast-break points in the third quarter. This was a moment when the team let go of the rope.
And so just as the Clippers started hitting tough shots and finding their rhythm with their stars, the Magic’s stars were quiet.
Banchero and Wagner struggled even to get the ball in their hands combining for six total field goals in the quarter between them. When the Magic needed to find baskets and find scoring to slow things down, they did not have their drumbeat.
Banchero is averaging only 12.5 points per game and shooting 37.8 percent from the floor. Wagner is scoring 18.0 points per game and 37.9 percent shooting. Banchero is not a highly efficient scorer, but he was expected to make some gains that just have not been there. Wagner is a super efficient scorer who has been struggling to find his shot — he is making only 33.3 percent of his threes so far.
The Magic’s defense has carried its water and been outstanding this season so far. That is the heart of this team. But they will ultimately need these star players to carry the team offensively.
Right now, the Magic are trying to focus on doing the simple things offensively.
"“My main focus is trying to make shots,” Banchero said after Tuesday’s game. “It’s been rough so far. It’s going to come. I got to trust it. My teammates have to trust it. It’s going to come. That’s my main focus.”"
The Magic at this point are trying to just get a base for their stars to grow from. There are a lot of concerns about the team’s spacing and ability to shoot — the Magic are 25th in the league shooting 30.7 percent from beyond the arc this season including 7 for 30 against the Clippers. And the Magic probably need to figure that out to unleash and free up their stars.
But the baseline for any team is its star players. They are the thing the whole world revolves around. And both have seen their usage rates be inconsistent and certainly not look at a star — Banchero is at 22.3 percent and Wagner is at 25.2 percent after sitting at 27.5 percent and 23.5 percent respectively last year.
Wagner has struggled with his efficiency this year uncharacteristically. Perhaps he is trying to impose himself on the game more in Banchero’s absence.
Players have lauded Banchero for making the right play — his assists are up to 4.5 assists per game up from 3.7 per game last year. But the Magic need someone to take the reins. And these numbers just make that abundantly clear.
That was clear as the Clippers raced past the Magic. Their stars took over and rescued the team, giving them a sense of calm and the will to win. That is perhaps something Orlando’s young stars need to learn. Another lesson to take for this young team early in the season.
The Magic will need their stars to take over at some point soon.