At the end of the Orlando Magic's game against the New York Knicks on Monday, coach Jamahl Mosley had a difficult choice to make.
Jalen Suggs was still feeling sick and not nearly as effective as he typically is. The Magic had burned through Wendell Carter and Markelle Fultz's minute restrictions. But the game was still in the balance. And it was a needed one to break a three-game losing streak.
Mosley rolled the dice on, or compromised perhaps, some of these injury restrictions (Mosley said the medical team, he and Carter were in constant communication to ensure Carter was feeling well enough to play to be available for the extra minutes). Fultz and Carter would finish the game.
There was no Franz Wagner, but the Magic were going to roll with the lineup they imagined they would have when the season began. Orlando is starting to get back to its fully healthy lineup.
If results are the ultimate judge of these decisions, the decision worked Monday afternoon in New York.
Fultz made several big plays, pushing the ball down the court and finding Paolo Banchero for two critical assists. He then found Carter for a layup that made it a five-point game and secured the win. It looked like the Magic finally had their lineup.
A lot of these decisions get criticized or scrutinized because of results. And so the conversation after the Orlando Magic's buzzer-beating loss to the Atlanta Hawks has put rotation decisions in the crosshairs.
Mosley again turned to Carter and Fultz to close the game. And while Markelle Fultz defended Dejounte Murray as well as humanly possible on the final shot, everyone was looking for a rebound on that critical five-offensive-rebound possession with about two minutes left. And Carter, of course, missed a game-tying free throw late that Paolo Banchero's three-pointer covered up.
Still, this is revealing. The Magic's fate was on the line and Mosley turned to Carter and Fultz to close the game. These decisions are about trust and Mosley has a lot of trust in Carter and Fultz right now it would seem.
It seems their return to the starting lineup is a matter of time, even if Mosley is still hesitant to make the move so suddenly after their returns.
"I'm just going to go back to whatever the game is telling me," Mosley said after Wednesday's loss. "That's what a lot of this is going to be. We'll continue to feel it out as a group. As we start to get some practices at some point under our belt. We can continue to build and grow with the camaraderie and chemistry with those guys on the floor. It's not going to be an indicator of whether they are going to be in the lineup or not."
The Magic are still operating with Carter and Fultz on something of a minute restriction. Carter was supposed to play 12-16 minutes as he worked his way back from right knee tendinitis.
But Carter played 18:53 in his first game back Monday and then played 24:00 minutes in Wednesday's loss. Carter is certainly getting an increased playload.
Fultz too has seen his minutes spike.
Mosley stuck to around 16 minutes in his first three games back. But he played 23:28 in Monday's win over the Knicks and then 30:15 on Wednesday against the Hawks. It is safe to say he is not on an injury restriction.
With how quickly they have both seen their minutes increase, it is clear who Mosley trusts. Even with any restrictions they might have been facing, they got on the floor with the game on the line.
The Magic's four-man lineup with Paolo Banchero and Jalen Suggs playing with Wendell Carter and Markelle Fultz this year has broken even (100.5 offensive and defensive rating) in 93 minutes together across six games. In the last two games, that group is +2.2 points per 100 possessions (122.2 offensive rating/120.0 defensive rating) in five minutes.
There are not a lot of minutes to make too many conclusions. Even early in the season, the group did not play together long enough to make conclusions. The Magic are still working with preseason assumptions at the midpoint of the season.
But the lineup with Caleb Houstan and Chuma Okeke the Magic have used the last several games has struggled.
In 88 minutes togehter, the group of Jalen Suggs, Caleb Houstan, Chuma Okeke, Paolo Bancheor and Goga Bitadze has a +0.2 net rating with a 111.8 offensive rating and 111.6 defensive rating. But that includes a stellar showing Wednesday when the group won their minutes 36-31 in that game.
These lineups are still dealing with small sample sizes. And most of the Magic's problems ultimately boil down to the team's inability to score.
The odd part of Wednesday's game and the outlier of that game is that the defense faltered in the final three minutes -- the Hawks scored on the final five possessions of the game.
The injuries have made it hard to figure out what Orlando's ideal lineups are.
The Magic's most-used lineup this year is its most-used starting lineup of Anthony Black, Jalen Suggs, Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner and Goga Bitadze at +6.0 net rating (111.0 offensive rating/104.9 defensive rating) in 254 minutes. Only eight lineups have played 48 minutes this season.
The best offensive lineup that has played at least 12 minutes is Cole Anthony, Gary Harris, Joe Ingles, Paolo Banchero and Goga Bitadze at 142.9 points per 100 possessions (+33.2 net rating in 23 minutes across 11 games). Their best defensive lineup that has played at least 12 minutes is that same lineup with Anthony Black instead of Cole Anthony at 76.9 points allowed per 100 possessions (+25.6 net rating in 18 minutes across seven games).
That should make clear what kind of lineups the Magic need to construct and perhaps what their lineup needs to succeed.
The best lineup with Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter in it is the recent group that features Joe Ingles, Jonathan Isaac and Cole Anthony.
The Magic are still managing how to bring players back from injuries and who the best groups are. That is still a process, one that perhaps still takes too long.
"Because of guys just coming back and certain minute restrictions, it is a little easier to bring guys off the bench," Mosley said after shootaround Wednesday. "Until we get a full-blown practice, then we will have to look at what that looks like for the rhythm and the chemistry. Like I've said many times before, by committee means fully by committee. We have so many guys on this roster who can step up and step in at any point depending on the game and the flow of what is going on."
That practice time is coming and the Magic's rotation may finally settle into something more comfortable.
The Orlando Magic have a busy weekend with a three-game homestand against the Philadelphia 76ers (Friday), Miami Heat (Sunday) and Cleveland Cavaliers (Monday). Then the team does not play again until it hits the road to face the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday.
Orlando will surely use those three days off and two practices to get players back up to full speed -- including returning Franz Wagner if he is not back sooner -- and perhaps finalize these lineups.
The party line right now may remain that the team wants to limit players for injuries and that everyone on the roster is capable of stepping up, but the Magic also have to play the lineups they are comfortable with to be successful.
And it should be clear who the Magic trust in these situations. That part is revealing. The flow of the game reveals who Mosley believes gives him the best chance to win.
It is only a matter of time before the team employs those kinds of lineups full-time and set a healthy rotation for the first time since early in the season.