Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner will need help to lift the Orlando Magic farther

Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner once again carried a heavy scoring load for the Orlando Magic as they nearly led the team to a win against the Phoenix Suns. They will need some help and it appears it is coming.

Paolo Banchero turned in another starring performance for the Orlando Magic, who need some reinforcements to ease his burden and get moving in the right direction.
Paolo Banchero turned in another starring performance for the Orlando Magic, who need some reinforcements to ease his burden and get moving in the right direction. / Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
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66. Final. 107. 38. Magic Suns Final 12.31.23. 112

For a part of the fourth quarter, Franz Wagner and Kevin Durant were trading buckets, each taking turns trying to take the other one-on-one or seeking baskets to match the other.

In a two-point game entering the final period, every shot was going to matter and every basket was going to be big. The Orlando Magic's stars would have to stare down the Phoenix Suns' trio of stars. After fighting back from a 15-point deficit, it certainly felt like the Magic could do it. They could fight back.

Wagner was matchup hunting throughout the quarter, putting Kevin Durant and Chimezie Metu in pick and rolls and then attacking Metu on the switch, getting to the basket to finish.

Wagner had his scoring binge. When that subsided and the Magic were still in the game, they tried going to Banchero.

Banchero did the same, hitting jumpers with ease and getting to the rim including a tough, physical finish over the full might of the Suns' attempts at defending him.

Wagner and Banchero turned in clear All-Star-level performances. They continue to evolve and grow their games and will an undermanned Magic team into competitive situations. Orlando had every chance to win and the team was going to ride its stars for as long as it could.

Unfortunately, they ran out of gas. With so little reliable shooting, they put all the onus on themselves. They made others better and set up plenty of shots, but they were the ones carrying the scoring and creation burden. There was seemingly no one to make shots easy for them and no one could hit a shot down the stretch to support them.

The Magic simply went cold at the wrong moment in a 112-107 loss to the Suns at Footprint Center on Sunday. They trailed 103-102 with six minutes left and gave up a 9-0 run to fall too far behind to make up ground.

This is a Magic team with a lot of potential and a lot of talent. But they are still missing something to help their young stars get over the hump.

At least identifying both Banchero and Wagner as these potential building block stars is complete. Now it is about developing the help they need around them.

"Obviously, I'm super biased. But to me, they're both All-Stars," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Sunday's game. "The way in which they play, they make everybody around them better, they don't shy away from big moments, they play hard on both ends of the floor. Again, it's about how great they make their teammates and their willing to do anything necessary to help their team win."

Whether both Banchero and Wagner make it to Indianapolis in February is going to be a matter for the Eastern Conference's coaches to decide. With the Magic sitting in a comfortable playoff spot -- although another tough January will test this young team -- it seems almost assured they will get one and it will most likely go to Banchero as the heavier usage player of the two.

But if both Banchero and Wagner put in more scoring outings like these, it will not be crazy if the Magic have two representatives on the East's squad.

A game after Wagner scored 32 points and Banchero scored 29 points as they both made critical plays down the stretch to deliver a critical home win over the New York Knicks, the duo again put in a crazy scoring performance that the Magic have rarely seen.

Banchero led the team with 28 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. He made 12 of 23 shots and two of his six 3-point attempts, adding that dimension to his game on an otherwise poor shooting night for the team from deep (although better than recent outings).

Wagner was no slouch too. He had 27 points to go with seven rebounds and six assists. He was also getting downhill and toward the basket, especially in the second half. He scored 18 in the second half making 8 of 13 shots.

They did a lot of heavy lifting to keep the Magic in the game and keep up with the Suns' star-studded lineup. There is no shame in the fight they showed.

With the Magic's roster so depleted, they have started to do that more and more.

Banchero is averaging 26.2 points per game, 7.5 rebounds per game and 5.2 assists per game while shooting 44.3 percent in his last six games. He had a usage rate no lower than 28 percent in those five previous games -- and was at 31.3 percent on Sunday.

Wagner has equaled him. In his last six games, Wagner is averaging 27.3 points per game and 7.0 rebounds per game while returning to an efficient 54.3 percent shooting and 40.0 percent from three (not to mention 93.3 percent from the line).

Wagner's usually pedestrian usage rate (it has been increasing well above 20 percent and closer to 25 percent for the year) eclipsed 30 percent for just the third time this season and the second time in the last three games. Wagner has been more assertive all year, but he is taking on a bigger challenge now.

About the only thing both Banchero and Wagner did not do well in Sunday's game was get to the line at their usual frequency. Some of that was because they so easily got to the basket.

That would seem like asking them to do too much. And while Orlando did a lot of things really well in this game, there was still too much the team did not do right.

It started with the team's turnovers -- 15 of them total for 16 Phoenix points. That included seven in the third quarter that helped the Suns rebuild a 15-point lead. That put the Magic in a hole they were climbing out of for most of the game and was blamed as the chief culprit for the defeat despite the Magic's fight to get back into the game.

Orlando simply wore down too much at the end of the game. And some of that had to do with Banchero and Wagner's workload.

The star duo played 37:02 and 38:53 respectively. It was the eighth time this season Banchero has played 37 or more minutes and the seventh time Wagner has played more than 38 minutes.

Those might end up being their playoff workloads, but they got very little help at these critical moments.

Where Jalen Suggs and Goga Bitadze were able to hit big buckets down the stretch in the win Friday against the Knicks, Suggs and Gary Harris missed several key open 3-pointers and shots down the stretch Friday.

If there is good news then, it is that Wendell Carter returned ot the lineup and put in his best game of the season with 17 points off the bench.

"That was great to see," Banchero said after Sunday's loss. "Just kept telling him all game to keep going and be aggressive. We're a better team when he is scoring the ball and being aggressive. He's going to help us a lot."

Orlando's usual balance was simply not there. Cole Anthony was the only other player in double figures with 14 points.

If there is good news then, it is that reinforcements seem to be on their way. Both Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac were questionable for the game and ultimately gametime decisions after they went through their pregame shooting slots. Both seem close to returning.

It is clear Orlando needs more shooting. And it needs an upgrade elsewhere.

But this past week and even this game against the Suns so clearly showed what this young duo is capable of. The Magic have their stars to build around and they are good enough to give the team a chance to win games.

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Right now, they are coming into their own carrying the team through this rough part of the schedule. They just need some reinforcements to help this team take off.