Orlando Magic's season will be determined in the margins

The Orlando Magic lost to the Atlanta Hawks on a buzzer-beater to Dejounte Murray. But that is not what decided the game. What decided the game is the same thing that will decide the season -- the margins and little plays that determine games.

Markelle Fultz and the Orlando Magic missed out on some key plays throughout the game that added up to set up a game-winner for Dejounte Murray.
Markelle Fultz and the Orlando Magic missed out on some key plays throughout the game that added up to set up a game-winner for Dejounte Murray. / Jordan Godfree-USA TODAY Sports
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38. Magic Hawks Finals 01.17.24. 106. 125. Final. 104

Wendell Carter looked at the box score of Wednesday's 106-104 Orlando Magic loss to the Atlanta Hawks and did not see much that went wrong at first glance.

The Magic dominated the glass. They scored plenty in the paint. They controlled Trae Young and Dejounte Murray for much of the game. They forced and converted off turnovers. They did not turn the ball over.

It was the kind of game where you could tip your hat to the other team for hitting a big shot and chalk it up to makes and misses, as the saying goes.

The Magic tied the game with 9.2 seconds to play after Paolo Banchero saved a broken possession with his only 3-pointer of the game. It felt like Banchero would once again save the Magic and allow the defense to set up for a stop to get the game to overtime.

The Hawks came right back at the Magic though. Dejounte Murray took the ball the length of the floor with Markelle Fultz shadowing him the entire way. Murray rose from 18 feet and hit a tough floater over Fultz at the buzzer to deliver the win to the Hawks.

That shot was just good defense in the end. There was not much more the team could do. But, as always, that is not where the game was won or lost in the end.

"That's what we have to continue to understand, it's never about that final shot," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Wednesday's game. "Everyone wants to look at that. Obviously, it goes in so you don't get the game. But it's ultimately the early turnovers, it's the box outs where they get three extra possessions, those are the things that change the game. We talk about the little details. In games like this, that's what it's going to continue to be."

You can peruse the box score and the play-by-play a bit closer and discover where the Magic really lost this game.

Free throw shooting has been a problem for the Magic and with the team not getting its usual diet from the foul line, each miss felt bigger. Orlando went 16 for 22 from the foul line for the game.

Down three points with one minute to play, Jalen Suggs split a pair of free throws to cut the deficit to one. Chuma Okeke then got the rebound and reset for the team. After Banchero missed a jumper, Suggs rebounded and Carter went to the foul line.

Carter too split the free throws, leaving the Magic down one instead of tied with 40 seconds to play.

The Hawks went 20 for 22 from the foul line in the game. That four-point difference was part of what swung the game.

"The fact that we are just in these games is getting us prepared," Carter said after Wednesday's loss. "Those small margins now that I'm looking at it, 72 percent from the free throw line as a team, we can't do that. When we make it to the playoffs and we are in those moments, free throws matter, the amount of turnovers matter, offensive decisions matter, defensive decisions matter. I'm kind of happy that we are in these situations early on so that when we get into those games in the playoffs when it really matters, we'll be prepared."

So too were fouls late in the game.

Trae Young got three trips to the foul line in the final 2:32 of the game, making all six attempts to seesaw the Hawks in the lead and consistently put the Hawks ahead by three points, just out of reach for a Magic team struggling to shoot from three.

Orlando did not record a defensive stop for the final three minutes of the game over the final five possessions. That included a possession where the Hawks grabbed five offensive rebounds that ended with Murray hitting a floater to give the Hawks a three-point lead.

The team could even go further back and point to the Hawks' run late in the third quarter had three turnovers in the final 2:42 of the third quarter that turned the Magic's lead into a two-point deficit entering the final quarter. Orlando scored only three points in that stretch to close the quarter as Atlanta zoomed ahead.

As the team looks ahead to the second half of the season and the playoffs, these are plays that matter. And that is what the team has to learn to find success.

"It's not only that last play. It's a culmination of a lot of things to put them in a position to have that shot and have that opportunity," Suggs said after Wednesday's game. "I thought we did a good job today. The ball was popping, moving. A lot of times we got good shots out of good actions. Just cleaning things up. We missed a lot of good, open shots, knocks those down and keep pushing. You can't dwell on these too much, you learn from them and move onto the next one."

The Magic did a lot of good things too.

They forced 23 turnovers for 28 points. They attacked the offensive glass. They stayed in it and kept pace with the Hawks, never letting them pull away despite their offensive onslaught. They adjusted and cut off some of the Hawks' pet plays.

But Orlando just could not get that last little bit. There were just too many little mistakes breaking through. And it hurt the team.

This might be the most important lesson for this team. Everything for the Magic is eyeing and geared toward those do-or-die games in April that this team seems destined to face. The Magic see themselves making the playoffs and know games like this are the norm.

To win these kinds of games means making the little plays for the full 48 minutes and taking care of the things they can control.

Orlando let this one slip through their fingers in this way. And that set them up for heartbreak in a very visible way with a game-winning shot.

Next. Suggs Keys 01.13.24. Jalen Suggs holds the keys to Orlando Magic's future. dark

But that is not what lost them the game. And not the ultimate lesson the Magic need to take to heart as their season turns for home.