Orlando Magic won't use injuries as an excuse, but it's clear they are the problem

The Orlando Magic continue to fade down the standings after another loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The injuries continue to be the story even if the team does not want to use them as such.
Paolo Banchero is carrying the Orlando Magic through their injuries. As much as it is not an excuse, it is kind of the problem for the team.
Paolo Banchero is carrying the Orlando Magic through their injuries. As much as it is not an excuse, it is kind of the problem for the team. / Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

112. 149. Final. 100. 38. Magic Thunder Final

Following Friday's game against the Miami Heat, I asked Moe Wagner if the injuries are becoming a bit too much and that the absences, while not an excuse, are wearing on the team at all.

Wagner, ever the optimist and the realist in the group, said he did not see the injuries as much of a problem. To his mind, admitting that there was an issue or a struggle the team was going through was to give it power. It would be to attract thoughts that this team could not win because of the injuries it was facing.

That is a good thought to have. The Magic did lose Friday by three points with the ball in their hands to take the lead in the final seconds.

They could say the same about Saturday's 112-100 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Magic fought and scratched and clawed to cut a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit to six points with two minutes to play. And then they just made silly errors to cost them the game.

Jaylen Williams missed a floater and then somehow dug out his own rebound before hitting a short floater. Then Paolo Banchero got blitzed on a screen to turn the ball over forcing Cole Anthony to commit a foul in transition to prevent an easy basket. He got called for a flagrant and a chance to win suddenly evaporated.

Those mistakes are not caused by the team's injuries or the absences in the lineup. The Magic still can fight enough to give themselves a chance to win. In this respect, there is no problem except the team's ability to execute.

These games are still out there for the taking for as bleak as things feel.

"When we had it down to six, there was a turnover here, an offensive rebound there," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Saturday's game. "Those little things. We talk about not being able to beat ourselves and those were the things it came down to in those moments. We had it down, we battled, we fought. But you have to take care of the little things in those situations that we rebound the basketball and execute down the stretch."

But therein lies part of the problem. Injuries are still part of why this team is losing and why the team is struggling to overcome the pressure they have put on this roster.

So many issues the Magic are facing come down to the jumbled rotations and lineups the Magic have had to play to survive. It comes down to the burden the team has had to place on their star in Paolo Banchero. And it comes down to asking a lot of projected role players to step up.

All of this has happened inconsistently even with Banchero putting up All-Star numbers and trying to carry his team forward.

Teams are trying their best to choke off Banchero and force someone else to get involved and win the game.

That burden on Banchero is becoming increasingly more visible as he tries to carry the team through this part of the season.

Banchero has been incredible in his last six games -- pouring in another 20 points, nine rebounds and eight assists to lead the Magic on Saturday. He is averaging 28.8 points per game, 7.2 rebounds per game and 6.2 assists per game while taking 23.7 field goal attempts per game. His usage rate has climbed to an insane 35.3 percent usage rate.

That is a heavy burden to carry -- one that is similar to Tracy McGrady's career-high 35.2 percent usage rate in the 2003 season, for some reference of the kind of creation and scoring the magic have leaned on Paolo Banchero to create.

And he is absolutely feeling it.

The Thunder were sending double- and triple-teams at him. That forced him into two turnovers, but he is averaging 4.2 turnovers per game during this stretch. Everyone knows who is getting the ball on every possession. And it is a question of whether they can stop him.

And then whether anyone else will step up.

"I think just trying to help him out," Caleb Houstan said after Saturday's game. "Obviously he gets a lot of attention. It's on us to cut, space out and be aggressive when he does kick it out to us and certain situations so it takes pressure off him.

There have been plenty of players who have done so. What has been missing is consistency and everyone falling into new roles as they find a new formula to win.

Caleb Houstan has averaged 13.2 points per game in the last six games, but he has been a streak 3-point shooter. Jalen Suggs has averaged 16.3 points per game, but he has slowed down significantly in the last two games as he dealt with the illness that has gone throughout the team.

Moe Wagner has averaged 13.3 points per game and Cole Anthony have averaged 10.8 points per game. But their production has greatly decreased from when the Magic's bench dominated teams earlier in the season.

Saturday against Oklahoma City, the team was seeking for players, particularly in the starting lineup, to step up and support Banchero. Orlando was seeking someone to attack and help set others up and give Banchero a breather.

There just was not much relief even with Caleb Houstan and Cole Anthony each scoring 14 points and Anthony Black scoring 13 off the bench. Orlando found pockets to score, but there was no consistent push. And certainly not while Banchero sat.

There is some good news then.

Players are starting to come back. Joe Ingles and Markelle Fultz are slated to return to play Monday after sitting out the second night of a back-to-back Saturday. By all reports Franz Wagner is back on the court and progressing toward a return.

This down period of injuries may soon be over and the Magic can get themselves back to normal.

Ingles returned from injury Friday to score 14 points. That proved to be a huge boost against the Heat.

Jonathan Isaac returned to the lineup Saturday after a 10-game absence. He looked rusty but his size and defense made impacts for the team and he contributed six points from the foul line after he got fouled on two 3-point attempts.

That is some much-needed relief for this team.

Still, the Orlando Magic have shown themselves capable of winning these games with really only a blowout loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves as the only dud in the last six outings. They are competing and that is not something to overlook either. This team has fought to keep itself afloat through all the absences.

And they are coming up short as the margin for error shrinks.

"Ultimately, give [Oklahoma City] credit for how they played and what they've done," Mosley said after Saturday's game. "But when you are down bodies, it's hard to not finish a possession, to go 15 for 24 from the free throw line, to turn the ball over 16 times for 23 points. Those are the margins that we're working and have to continue to get better at as a group and as a unit."

Then again, they are doing just that and fighting and clawing because of how short-handed they are. They are asking a lot of everyone, including Banchero. And frustration is growing that they cannot put together the full 48 minutes they need to win with this group.

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Injuries are not why they are losing. But they are not helping. And everyone can see how desperate this team is to get healthy and return to the groove that built the fast start to their season.