Winning, executing late is the critical hurdle for the Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic and Paolo Banchero have struggled late in games this year and that could be a big hurdle to clear. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic and Paolo Banchero have struggled late in games this year and that could be a big hurdle to clear. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) /

Throughout the season, the Orlando Magic have experienced one thing repeatedly. A trend that has been frustrating as it has been illuminating.

It may be a necessary growing pain for such a young team. Maybe this is a moment that everyone will look back and laugh at or the necessary steps wherever this team is headed.

At the moment, though, it is frustrating because answers seem to be both obvious and difficult. And with narrow margins expected for the team’s postseason hopes, every close loss feels painful. It feels big.

Still, at this point in the season, nothing is set in stone. What the team is looking at and exploring are trends. Things that are happening with regularity and seem to point to patterns and trends for the team this season.

And one of those trends has been awful play in the clutch. These critical, decisive parts of the game have seen the Magic struggle with every part of their identity. Put under the time and score pressures of the game, Orlando is struggling to execute on both ends.

The Orlando Magic have struggled late in games to start the season and that will be a big hurdle for this young team to overcome.

This is undoubtedly the last hurdle the Magic have to overcome. This is what will determine their playoff fate. They are undoubtedly better than they were last year, despite some clear frustrations and weaknesses. But their ability to close games will ultimately determine whether their record reflects that.

And early this season, Orlando has just struggled to execute on any level in the clutch.

The global stats say this as much as the individual anecdotes do.

In clutch situations — when the game is within five points in the final five minutes — Orlando is 2-3 and has a 58.8 offensive rating in clutch situations. Amazingly there are three teams worse offensively in clutch situations than the Magic.

But regardless of how many possessions or minutes played (just 15 minutes), that is just a terrible number.

The sample is probably too small to make these numbers that meaningful at this point. So from a raw number perspective, Orlando is getting outscored 30-20 in clutch situations. The Magic have made only 8 of 26 shots from the floor and just 1 of 11 3-pointers. Orlando has turned the ball over nine times in clutch situations.

Remember, this is all in 15 minutes. That is a bad quarter no matter how you want to mash it up.

A lot of coaches, even ones who are invested heavily in defense, believe the end of games are all about the ability to score and just get points at the end of games. Orlando has not yet played a game where it has to make up ground at the end of games — in every clutch situation, the Magic were playing from ahead — but it would still seem to make sense that the best defense in a close game is to keep pushing the “target score,” so to speak, beyond reach.

That is what the Orlando Magic did in Saturday’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers when a Cole Anthony three with about four minutes left in the fourth quarter pushed the lead back to 15 points and had Lakers coach Darvin Ham replace his starters and end the game.

In a lot of cases, offense is the best defense.

Indeed, nobody should say the Magic’s defense has been particularly terrible. Orlando has a 107.1 defensive rating late in games. That is worse than the team’s overall average, but it is enough to keep the team in games and eventually win them.

Even in Thursday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Orlando Magic entered the clutch up three points and eventually lost by one point. Orlando made three defensive stops over those final five minutes. There were a lot of fouls in the process. But Orlando scored only six points in the process.

That just is not good enough for what is nearly half a quarter.

Jamahl Mosley is correct to say that the game was lost with the team’s own mistakes. Turnovers and missed free throws — 10 of them — cost the team in a one-point loss. Games are won or lost over the course of a whole 48 minutes a not just one play or five minutes to close the game.

"“It’s tough, man,” Jalen Suggs said after Thursday’s game. “These hurt because we had the game locked. They did a great job down the stretch in closing it out. We’ve got to get better. Good learning opportunities for us though.”"

Still, the Magic’s offense has been a struggle throughout the season. But it gets tighter as the team gets to the end of games.

And Orlando’s defense — no defense really — can completely shutdown the kind of good shotmaking that wins late and it leaves no margin for error — there is always no margin for error when the game comes down to one possession.

What played out in the Magic’s loss to the Hawks was similar to what the Magic saw in several games throughout the season so far.

The Orlando Magic led by 13 points with 5:35 left to play against the Portland Trail Blazers and proceeded to get outscored 13-5 the rest of the way, letting the margin get as close as five points with a minute to play. Orlando went 1 for 7 with three turnovers during that stretch.

Against the Los Angeles Lakers in Los Angeles, the Orlando Magic led by four points with four minutes to play. The Magic scored only five more points the rest of the way shooting 2 for 9 to close the game, missing some good shots but also making some poor decisions along the way.

In the win against the Utah Jazz, the Orlando Magic led by eight points with 5:29 to play. The Jazz outscored the Magic 14-8 with the Magic shooting 2 for 7 with three turnovers. One of those makes was the Paolo Banchero layup that turned out to be the game-winner as the Magic gave up the lead late in the game.

And then there was the Dallas Mavericks game on Monday. Orlando trailed by two points with 5:31 to play. Dallas proceeded to score the next nine points as the Magic unraveled. Orlando made only two of the team’s final eight shots with two turnovers.

All of these games seemed to follow that same pattern. Orlando’s offense struggled to make shots, turnovers compounded the problem and the team lost those critical minutes, giving or nearly giving away every clutch situation the Magic have been in.

It is something the Magic have to figure out if they want to win games. And it highlights a lot of the same problems the team has overall — its offense is wildly inconsistent and does not have a simple thing it can do to get points.

Adding to the frustration was how good the Magic played late in games last year. Orlando went 19-25 last year in late game situations with a 111.1/120.4 split. After Dec. 7, the Magic were 16-13 with a 117.4/112.3 split.

That might be the weirdest thing of all. Orlando was decent in clutch situations last year. This is not a team that simply has to learn how to play in these situations. They have done it.

But the team will have to learn and have to find a way to be better in these situations. Whether that is a tactical change on how they run their offense or just being more committed or focused on defense, Orlando is going to be a team that has to hold its own in clutch situations.

"“Just continue to learn how to close out games and become better in these fourth quarters and end of game situations for where we want to go,” Suggs said after Thursday’s game. “Understanding that it hurts right now and it sucks. But in the grand scheme of things, we want to clean these things up early rather than later when they mean a lot.”"

Next. Orlando Magic finding their right tempo. dark

And while Orlando is 2-3, all five games were rocky finishes for this team. This is something the team has to solve and get better at to get where they want to go and grow the way they want.