Trust in the young stars, each other growing Orlando Magic quickly

The Orlando Magic faced a close game against the New York Knicks. But the young team did not blink, trusting their young stars to make decisions and trusting each other to close the game out with a big win.
Paolo Banchero and the Orlando Magic showed their composure and poise down the stretch to hold off the New York Knicks.
Paolo Banchero and the Orlando Magic showed their composure and poise down the stretch to hold off the New York Knicks. / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

117. 38. Final. 108. 27. Magic Knicks Final 12.29.23

The Orlando Magic had been in these situations before. Late games, trying to hold onto a lead and a veteran team with a pair of All-Stars coming downhill right at them.

The Magic had watched a 20-point lead slowly whittled down to five as the game got tighter and the visiting New York Knicks crowd suddenly awakened from a stupor brought on by the Orlando Magic's suffocating defense.

Orlando needed a moment to reset itself. And so at a break in the action before a free throw, everyone huddled together. There were reminders that the team had been in this position. The team had been successful in this position. Everyone just needed to trust that experience and execute.

They knew exactly what to do to get the win.

There is a lot of confidence in this Magic team right now. Even after losing five of the past seven games, they know how good they can be and they know it is just about their ability to execute and finish games. They know who to trust and how to trust each other.

They know more than anything else to (as cliche as it is) "trust the process." That will ultimately get the team to wins. Because that process is working.

Orlando did not ever back down from New York. Not with Jalen Brunson acting like a madman to try to get to the basket and get to the foul line in the frantic final moments of the game. Not when the team struggled to hit shots throughout the game. They stuck to their defense

And they trusted their best players to carry them to the finish line in a 117-108 victory over the Knicks at Kia Center, a critical victory for the team before heading out West and to create some separation in the early postseason chase.

"I think everybody is out there for a reason. We need everyone to make plays," Franz Wagner said after Friday's win. "What we got better at the most is the poise and communication when things aren't going our way. We stay together as a group and don't get too down too quickly."

Everyone did make plays one way or another.

Those plays came in the form of two critical passes from Paolo Banchero -- one on a dump down to Goga Bitadze after he attracted a double team on a drive to make it an eight-point game with seven minutes to play and the other on a kickout to Jalen Suggs in the short corner to make it a six-point lead with a minute to play.

Banchero finished the game from the foul line. But each time Orlando put the ball in the hands of its two young star players and trusted them to make the right decisions.

That proved to be a solid bet as both players turned in starring performances.

Wagner scored 32 points on 11-for-19 shooting, adding 3-for-5 shooting from deep in an otherwise quiet game for both teams from three. Banchero turned in 29 points, 10 rebounds and four assists for the Magic.

Suggs added another 21 points, six rebounds and five assists. Bitadze, starting for Wendell Carter who missed the game with right knee tendinitis, scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds in another energetic and strong defensive performance.

Everyone had to do their part to secure the victory and put the game away against a gritty Knicks team.

"Probably the cliche line is they play the right way, but they play the right way," coach Jamahl Mosley said of his two young stars. "They make the play that's necessary to be made. . . . So, they're making the right play because it's what the game is telling you. That's when we're really good. When we're just taking what the game gives us."

That is not an easy thing to do. And so much of this season for the Magic is about these little moments of growth.

Those moments also came in the form of the team constantly talking to each other.

The group huddled up several times down the stretch to keep everyone on the same page. Banchero and Wagner were talking to each other constantly to try and get the switches they wanted and exploit matchups. The two stars often worked in tandem to try to score late in the game.

The team was not going to let up in this one and certainly they were not going to falter in the way they did earlier in the season. It has been a struggle for a young team to learn how to win.

"I like staying under control," Banchero said after Friday's game. "That's when I feel I'm at my best. In situations late in the game, the biggest thing is finding the right matchups because the game really slows down. That was something me and Franz, we're just all in constant communication with each other along with Mose. We were trying to find the right matchup and make a play whether that was a shot or a pass."

But the Magic are doing that more and more. This team is growing up.

They are 10-4 in clutch situations -- albeit with a +0.3 net rating suggesting they do more holding onto their leads than dominating the final moments of a game. But even finding a way to scratch out those victories is a big sign of this team's growth and ultimately their trust in each other.

The Magic have seen themselves fall apart late in games before. But now Suggs said that is when the team is the most confident. They stayed together and found a way to get impact games from every player on the roster.

Wagner saw the team do the same thing. The team is no longer compounding its mistakes late and the team is finding ways to stay with the team's identity and compete.

"Continuing to stay together. We just have a team full of great people," Suggs said after Friday's game. "You trust them to make the right play. The ball was popping today. We put the Knicks in chase situations and it led to good things. I think it was a night of great growth for all of us."

It took stepping up with big plays on both ends late.

This team is a defensive team after all and a pair of blocks from Bitadze and Suggs on Brunson drives were just as critical as the shots they made. That is always the reminder.

These late-game situations reveal who teams are and what they are capable of doing. And the Magic are still showing their inexperience and youth, but they are also showing their potential poise to close these games out.

They do it together.

"It's continued growth of a great group," Mosley said after Friday's game. "You know, they've learned how to handle different situations and that's a great part about being in these situations beforehand. So, these guys talked about it in the huddle, they came in with poise, communicated to each other. We've been here before and they understand what to execute and when to do it. Those are the things that we work on in practice, so they understand in these big games, they've got to be ready to go."

A lot of things are turning from practice to results for this team. There are still fits and starts. But there is a lot of confidence that is continuing to grow.

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And if it keeps going, there will be a lot more wins that look like this one.