Orlando Magic showcase their potential, but aren't ready for primetime

The Orlando Magic had their national TV showcase game and fell a bit flat. The team seemed eager, but they might not be ready for primetime or for the playoff challenge ahead.

Paolo Banchero and the Orlando Magic had some early energy but fell flat to a more poised Oklahoma City Thunder team in their lone national TV game.
Paolo Banchero and the Orlando Magic had some early energy but fell flat to a more poised Oklahoma City Thunder team in their lone national TV game. / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
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Magic Thunder Final 02.13.24. 113. 38. Final. 127. 149

It was a loud night at the Kia Center on Tuesday.

Everyone was anticipating this game against the Oklahoma City Thunder once the schedule came out. It was the Orlando Magic's lone appearance on national TV. It was going to feel big even before the team announced it was retiring Shaquille O'Neal's jersey.

And the atmosphere delivered. There was a charged environment. It felt like the playoffs had come early.

Fans were engaged and energetic early. They brought the energy to the game that it called for. They made things feel big. Beyond the national television audience, it felt like a huge event.

That trickled down to the team. The Magic raced into the lead and took an 11-point lead in the first quarter. Their starters landed the first punch in this matchup of two of the best young teams in the league.

That energy and intensity was a preview for what the Magic might see and experience in the playoffs -- when every game feels added importance and (almost) every game is in the national spotlight.

"I didn't know we had it in us," Paolo Banchero said after Tuesday's game. "I looked at Jeff Turner at the scorer's table, and it was loud in here. The defense chants and all of that. It was great to be in that environment. Great job by the fans for putting that environment together for us. We couldn't come out with the win. As an organization and as a team, we would like that to be the new normal around here."

Sometimes the young franchise needs a reminder of what the fans can give them -- former coach Steve Clifford pointed that out in the midst of the team's 2019 run to the playoffs. But it still comes down to how the team plays on the floor.

There has been a lot for those fans to get excited about. This was a game that everyone waited for.

But it also proved to be another bullet point of the team's youth and inexperience. It was another marker of how the team is still fatally flawed and is not quite ready to compete at a higher level.

The Thunder had a strong game, but the Magic lost their wind after that initial breeze to open the game. Oklahoma City stayed poised and calm even while trailing. It found the shots Orlando was giving up and made the team pay.

The Magic eventually ran out of momentum in a 127-1113 loss at Kia Center on Tuesday. They were not able to hit shots and they were climbing uphill the rest of the way.

The Magic put forward their best foot early but then revealed their weaknesses and flaws as a team against a more finely tuned and focused Thunder team.

"We did a good job at times," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Tuesday's game. "There were moments where we couldn't get over the hump. Whether that was a timely missed shot that led to a fast break or a turnover that led to another fast break. I think it's those things -- being able to value the basketball and take care of it. But you've got to give Oklahoma City a ton of credit for the way they played."

Those flaws are apparent and well-known, left unaddressed at the trade deadline for better or worse.

Orlando struggled to shoot, making only 11 of 36 3-pointers for the game. Jalen Suggs hit 3 of 4 3-pointers in that first-quarter burst. But he was 1 for 8 the rest of the game. That speaks to the inconsistency the Magic always seem to have from deep.

Oklahoma City made only two more 3-pointers than Orlando in the game. As much as 3-point shooting and spacing is a problem -- the Thunder spent most of the game in a 3-2 zone the Magic could not seem to figure out -- it was not exactly what lost them the game.

That was the turnovers.

The Magic had 16 turnovers for 16 points. They had 11 in the first half and five in the first quarter. That prevented Orlando from getting out to a bigger lead or maintaining the lead.

Every time the Magic seemed set to make a run, they would have a misstep or mistake that would slow their momentum.

The Magic could not go to the places where they usually find relief.

With the Magic's difficulties in shooting, they rely a lot on getting to the foul line -- they were 20 for 25 -- and winning the free throw battle -- the Thunder were 22 for 24 from the line.

They also rely on scoring in the paint. Orlando won the paint 50-46. But they shot just 25 for 44 from inside the paint with Chet Holmgren blocking five shots. Franz Wagner shot 5 for 16 from the floor and 3 for 9 from inside the restricted area.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander broke through to be a star in the end too. Something the Magic's star duo struggled to do against the Thunder's top-five defense.

After holding Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to eight points on 3-for-11 shooting in the first half, he caught fire making his first six shots to start the third quarter on his way to 32 points on 11-for-24 shooting. Jalen Williams scored 17 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter to key a 15-2 run to put the game firmly away.

Banchero looked like a star with 23 points on 9-for-15 shooting and 10 assists. But he was passive for much of the game with the double and triple teams he faced. His aggression -- nine points in the third quarter -- came a bit too late.

There were a lot of things the Magic are typically good at that they could not rely on. The Magic may not have been far from making this a game, but the team was found wanting.

"I think they came out the right way with the right amount of focus, the right amount of energy starting off the game the right way," Mosley said after Tuesday's game. "Again, Oklahoma City played a hell of a basketball game. They made a ton of shots. But we've got to move on and get ready for New York tomorrow."

Orlando was not unprepared for the moment, but the team got a taste of what playoff basketball will feel like. The Thunder were a consistent dose of pressure, unphased by the atmosphere or the Magic's first punch. Orlando was chasing for most of the game and unable to regain a grip on the game.

For a young team, they needed experience in this kind of atmosphere. They needed experience against this kind of an opponent. They need all the experience they can get.

They do not know when they might get that national TV exposure again. There are no more national TV games on the schedule. And the story Tuesday night was more about the Thunder's ascendance rather than the Magic's inevitability.

To a national audience, it must have felt like the broadcast was there to celebrate Shaquille O'Neal and not to highlight this young Magic team.

Orlando is still looking to prove itself on a national stage.

"You can't take opportunities like that for granted to play in front of the world, especially on TNT," Banchero said after Tuesday's game. "It's what you dream of. if we do get that opportunity, you can't take it lightly. Just give it our all. Not saying we didn't tonight, but we didn't come out on the winning side."

This was as close to a playoff atmosphere as this team has likely seen. With their eyes on April, the Magic have to learn how to stay focused and poised at every moment. Let alone learning to do it four times.

Next. Magic place East 02.14.24. Orlando Magic staking claim to place in Eastern Conference. dark

But that is the education this team needs. Even if it comes with some hard lessons.