The past three games for the Orlando Magic were frustrating.
The Magic's hot start has started to fade as the luster off the nine-game winning streak moves further in the rearview mirror. Going up against some of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, the Magic are struggling and trying to find their way through.
They are trying to find themselves again and their way to compete -- or just keep their heads above water to stand on the platform they built through the first quarter of the season.
The Orlando Magic needed a bounce-back game and somewhat acheived that goal in Milwaukee against the Milwaukee Bucks juggernaut.
The Magic still lost 118-114 on the road, but the team's defense was better and they continued to fight to the end against a championship contender in the Bucks. There are no moral victories, but this game can do in the long run if Orlando continues to build on it.
"Our guys played hard," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Thursday's loss. "They played together. They played with poise. All the things that we're asking a team that's growing and getting better to do. I'm proud of their effort, their energy and the way they stayed together the entire night. We gave ourselves a chance."
The Magic's defense was the concerning issue in the last few outings. The team has struggled to shoot but it was the slippage on defense that had everyone concerned.
Orlando showed signs of life on that end, holding the Bucks to 29.7 percent shooting from three (11 for 37) and 42.2 percent from the field overall. The Magic also forced 13 turnovers while only turning the ball over seven times.
The Bucks had an offensive rating of 113.5 points per 100 possessions. That is well above the Magic's season-long average. But it was also the worst offensive showing for the Bucks since the In-Season Tournament loss to the Indiana Pacers and the worst showing before that since a Nov. 30 loss to the Chicago Bulls.
Milwaukee has been scoring on teams seemingly at will for the last month. Orlando can at least claim that as a feather in its cap.
The Magic just need to do a better job of keeping opposing teams off the free throw line as the Bucks shot 35 free throws although the attempts are inflated due to the Magic playing the foul game late.
Orlando's defense has consistently shown it can compete defensively against the best teams in the league when it locks in. Considering the back-to-back the Magic were on, it makes their defensive showing that much more impressive.
"I don't know if it's a moral victory, but it is definitely something to build on and look back on the film and take from the game and know that is one of the best teams in the league," Franz Wagner said after Thursday's game. "We competed really well with them tonight. If we play like that every night we give ourselves a great chance."
But the Magic did not get the win. And ultimately that falls on an offense that could not take advantage of open shots and the energy the defense gave it.
The Magic made too many mistakes on that end. Some will show up on the stat sheet while others will not.
The Magic once again struggled shooting the ball from three, making 24.2 percent from beyond the arc (8 for 33). These nights will happen as the Magic are not a good three-point shooting team. But this means Orlando has to do a better job in other areas.
The Magic missed seven free throws and a couple of critical ones from Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero down the stretch after Orlando cut into the lead after trailing by 15 early in the third quarter and by 10 in the midle of the fourth quarter.
The Magic can not afford to leave points on the board when they are trying to make up ground without the luxury of a 3-point shot.
Also the Magic have to continue to play their style of passing the ball. Orlando had 26 assists, but that also means that Orlando must take open shots.
There are times when the Magic pass up good shots in the paint to take threes. Anthony Black made this mistake late in the fourth quarter. The Magic have to take advantage of all their opportunities to score.
Orlando did live in the paint though. That was the big difference from the loss to Miami the night before. The Magic outscored the Bucks 60-40 in the paint. That is usually a good sign the team will ultimately win. They just needed a few outside shots to fall.
Against the elite teams in the league, that can be enough to tip the scales. The Magic are certainly learning how every possession and every moment matters when games are decided by such a small margin.
"I think for the most part we played a pretty solid game," Wagner said after Thursday's game. "Shot-making is something that's worth talking about. For the most part, we played the right way and tried to get the best shot possible. Sometimes you just don't make enough."
There were some bright spots individually that should be noted.
Franz Wagner scored 29 points on 13-for-23 shooting, although just one of six from three. Gary Harris finally got shots to fall scoring 14 points on 5-for-11 shooting and 2 for 6 from three. Wagner and Harris have to continue to try to get into a rhythm to allow the team's offense to breathe.
Moe Wagner came off the bench for 21 points and Cole Anthony had 18 to anchor the Magic's usually strong second unit. A lot of the formula Orlando uses to win were at play.
But the Bucks were better in key stretches. They executed and hit critical shots. The Magic did not and that ultimately decided the game. It did not take much for the Bucks to get the win. But they did just enough.
Orlando is now facing a four-game losing streak for the first time this season. The team has dropped in the standings some -- and certainly out of the elite trio that seems to rule the conference. And the schedule is not getting easier -- even with the also-struggling Indiana Pacers due up next Saturday.
Competing at the highest levels in the league is a difficult challenge and the Magic are searching for their way right now. The team took some strids against the Bucks. But that was still not good enough.
The team has to have some faith their work will lead back to results again.