Orlando Magic have to find accountability to themselves, their identity to win close games

The Orlando Magic again had to scamper back into a game with the Dallas Mavericks after another third quarter collapse. They have grown in a lot of ways, but they still need to find their identity when the chips are down.
The Orlando Magic struggled to corral the Dallas Mavericks on defense all night, leading to a frustrating close loss yet again.
The Orlando Magic struggled to corral the Dallas Mavericks on defense all night, leading to a frustrating close loss yet again. / Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

38. Magic Mavericks Final 01.29.24. 131. 79. Final. 129

After another late-game loss, the Orlando Magic walked off the American Airlines Center floor in disappointment.

For the third straight road game, they saw a victory slip through their fingers with a chance to walk away the victors on the final possession. It came down to a Dejounte Murray floater in Atlanta at the buzzer. In Memphis, it came down to Joe Ingles missing an open three.

In Dallas on Monday, it came down to Paolo Banchero having to make the first free throw and miss the second to pray for an offensive rebound. He executed that part perfectly, throwing the ball hard off the front of the rim and bouncing back to him. He could only deflect it out toward mid-court, starting the clock.

Franz Wagner collected it and got a late heave for the win, but the shot was short, and the Dallas Mavericks escaped with a 131-129 victory.

As coach Jamahl Mosley always reminds everyone, Games are not decided in those final moments. They are not decided in the last two minutes. They are the accumulation of events throughout the game.

Anyone who watched the game will point to the Magic's 12-point third quarter that had the Magic coughing up a 16-point halftime lead to trail by seven entering the final quarter. They will point to perhaps the 43-28 discrepancy on foul shots in the Mavericks', but also the fact the Magic committed 33 total fouls in the game, including several at critical points in the game -- including a flagrant foul on Wendell Carter that fouled him out of the game and gave Dallas a five-point possession to take a four-point lead with two minutes to play.

They will probably point out Jonathan Isaac's +15 plus/minus in his eight minutes of play and his first start since Jan. 1, 2020. The Magic held Isaac out of the second half as a precaution, opting to think of the long-term health for the postseason and sacrificing some short-term benefit.

As is the case in any close game, there are a lot of little things that could turn the result one way or the other -- including making or missing shots, foul calls that go for or against the team or shot decisions that have ripple effects throughout the game.

This young Magic team is still trying to learn and figure out how to turn these in their favor. And before looking at Luka Doncic (45 points, 15 assists, 18 for 21 shooting from the foul line) or looking to the refs and some of the foul calls they made or anything else, the Magic have to look at themselves.

In these tough times and situations with an Orlando-to-Dallas back-to-back, the Magic must ask themselves: What will they rely on? What is the thing that leads them to victories? And how do they dig deeper to find it when the chips are against them?

The Magic have started to build an identity for themselves. They have begun to figure out a lot of things. But then there are still a lot of games like this where the Magic have to find it.

In the end, what Orlando has to do the rest of this season is find a way to be accountable to itself and the style of play it wants to bring. Especially late in games. Doncic might be able to hit some tough shots, but the Magic did not play Magic basketball in the end.

"You've got to take a lesson with every loss," Paolo Banchero said after Monday's loss. "We've had a lot of close games this year. Some that have gone our way, some that haven't. We just have to take it, learn from it and when we get into this situation again just be ready to come out on top. We know what we have to do. Just have to get ready to hopefully get a win next time."

To say the Magic did not do that in Monday's game could be a bit unfair, in some respects.

Despite that poor third quarter, the Magic rallied. They did not let it derail them. The team showed the fight and grit that has defined it throughout this season to give itself a chance to win. The Magic retook the lead and were literally scratching and clawing to stay in the game.

No one should doubt the team's fight and effort. They gave themselves a chance to win.

But it is not about those final minutes and whether the team makes the plays. It is about how things accumulate.

This game came down to the Magic's stagnant third quarter when the team made only 4 of 20 shots in the quarter -- just 1 of 11 through the period's midpoint.

After beautifully moving the ball for 65.1 percent shooting in the first half, 19 assists and 12-for-22 shooting from deep, the Magic suddenly could not hit a shot (that part is not so surprising). They suddenly could not break down the Mavericks' porous defense.

Dallas went to a zone, and Orlando seemed unable to make clean passes or break it down. The team slowed to a crawl, unable to get into its sets quickly enough to break down the defense. The Magic had just four free throw attempts and four points in the paint -- on 2-for-10 shooting -- in the period.

That allowed Dallas to get back into the game.

But even the seeds of that were laid early. The Magic know they cannot always count on their offense. They constantly say their defense travels.

This is the part the team had to hold itself accountable to. Their defense had to win the day.

Except for the opening six minutes when Isaac played, the Magic struggled to keep their man in front of them. They looked a step slow and a bit off defensively throughout.

When Orlando could have pulled away and made this a bigger deficit, Dallas kept attacking, shooting 60.0 percent from the floor in the first half and 5 for 11 from three. The Mavericks made 62.3 percent from the floor for the game and 13 of 27 3-pointers. While the Magic forced their share of turnovers, these percentages are not Magic basketball.

It certainly is not going to cut it for this team.

Facing a back-to-back some slippage is expected. But the Magic are nearly six points per 100 possessions worse defensively on the second night of back-to-backs -- 117.3 points allowed per 100 possessions entering Monday's game.

They gave up 132.3 points per 100 possessions for the game and even 117.3 in the first half.

If the Magic want to be a defensive team, they have to be that team, especially when they are facing the deficit of a back-to-back. It is the big reason they struggle so much in these situations -- now 2-8 on the second night of back-to-backs.

What Orlando is seeking right now is consistency and accountability. The team has shown hints of what it can one day be and what it will grow into.

"Especially when you think about the age of this team and the experience, I think these road lessons and games that we win or lose on the road are good for us," Anthony Black said after Monday's loss. "I think every game we are taking a step forward and learning what we're trying to run and our defensive schemes down the stretch. I think we're just taking small steps forward every time we have one of those games."

The Magic have grown a lot this season. That cannot be overlooked.

But this is still a team maturing for these moments. This team is still looking to hold itself to its standard every night and every moment in a 48-minute game and an 82-game season.

Next. Proof of concept PG 01.29.24. Orlando Magic seeking proof of concept at point guard. dark

That is part of the growing pains the team faces this season. And Monday's loss was another reason to hold this team accountable to its standards. They did not meet them when the chips were down, and the game was ultimately decided.