With a chance to make the playoffs a real possibility for the Orlando Magic, their continued tendency to throw away winnable games has frustrated fans greatly.
There was a period early in the fourth quarter of what was a tight contest on Sunday night when the Orlando Magic looked like they knew they were going to lose the game. They had just seen their opponents, the bottom-feeding Cleveland Cavaliers, go to the free throw line again.
The Cavs had managed to do this six times in the first three quarters, but racked up four trips before the halfway point in the final quarter of play. The body language of the Magic players suggested they knew this wasn’t going to be their night.
In years gone by, when ping pong balls and honor were all that were left to play for as late as March, that would’ve been expected. On this occasion, however, it was anything but, as it represented the third instance in five games where they would go on to lose to a lottery-bound team.
These are wins that would have added precious padding to their position as the 8-seed in the Eastern Conference, but instead have gone to the loss column, giving them a record of 30-35. Sports fans are largely of the “what have you done for me lately” variety, but anybody can see this is a Magic team that has figured itself out and is, at the very least, good.
That’s why Orlando is without a doubt the most frustrating team in the NBA right now. The Los Angeles Lakers are having their own crisis of epic proportions, but each spotlight-filled loss almost has an expected feel to it now.
The Boston Celtics, while still technically good and sitting in fifth in the East, look like they’ve just come out of the funeral of a loved one each time they take to the court. More than that, they also looked like they were meeting for the first time, especially defensively, in what was a listless, losing effort against the Houston Rockets on Sunday.
Yet despite all of this, and with the Magic being as competitive as they’ve been since 2012, they still find ways to bring their fans crashing back down to earth.
It is not even the recent losses that have hurt the most. In some ways, it is the winning that has taken place around these defeats that has only served as a tantalizing glimpse into what this group could be if it could just find more consistency.
Prior to that defeat in Cleveland, the Magic had earned a road win over the Indiana Pacers. It was a gritty and spirited performance against a franchise that’s missing their best player in Victor Oladipo, but who continue to hang tough in the East with a “next man up” mentality.
Impressive as that 117-112 win was, the Magic had won their previous game as well — a rollicking home win over the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. Yes, the Dubs were missing Kevin Durant, but they also had more All-Stars available to play than the Magic have had on their roster combined since 2009.
So it was a win worth hanging their hats on, and one that washed away the sour taste of the previous outing, when they had somehow lost to the New York Knicks. That was another example of inept play, of assuming a W was coming.
They hadn’t accounted for players like Henry Ellenson, a man literally playing for his NBA career who was signed by the Knicks until the end of the season off the back of his performance against the Magic. He simply wanted it more, and it showed.
Only two days before that, it had all looked so different. The Magic went to Canada to play the Toronto Raptors, and won. The 113-98 scoreline reflected the fact that, if we’re being honest, it was quite a comfortable outing for the team.
They looked focused and locked in, and Terrence Ross had himself a game to the tune of a game-high 28 points. The Magic have become something of a bogey team for the Raptors recently, beating them twice this season. Before that though, they had put in a pathetic performance in a one-point loss to the Chicago Bulls.
You get the picture then. Of the seven games the Magic have played since the All-Star break, they have lost the games they should have won, and performed badly in the process, while winning the games that looked far more difficult. (This does not include the first game back, a win over the Charlotte Hornets that was huge for their playoff chances).
It is clear the Magic are playing to the level of their opponents each night since then, and it is so frustrating to watch. They had managed to fight hard to work their way back into the playoff conversation, but they are making this much harder for themselves than they need to.
The teams around them all have tougher remaining schedules, but that may not be true if the Magic continue to drop games to opponents they are supposed to beat handily. Perhaps it would be better if they played the Warriors or Raptors every night until the regular season ended, because they appear to bring the best out of the Magic.
The prize on offer is so great too, that they simply need to figure this out, and soon. It is conceivable they could snag the sixth spot in the East, with the Brooklyn Nets (who occupy it now) and Detroit Pistons in seventh both having tough upcoming games themselves. If the Magic could get to that spot, as things stand, a first round matchup with the Pacers would await.
It would be foolish to assume the Magic should have a large degree of confidence about beating the Pacers four times in seven games. It is, however, a far more achievable prospect than if they were to finish as the 8-seed and play the Milwaukee Bucks, or seventh and take on a Raptors team that won’t be resting Kawhi Leonard anymore.
This is why it is so important to fix this issue of playing down to opponents, and quickly. It doesn’t even make sense either, with the Magic boasting the best defensive rating (101.2) in the league over the last 10 games. It isn’t even close, with the Memphis Grizzlies (105.1) being in second.
They should be locking down lesser opponents with ease, not saving these performances for when Stephen Curry is in town. Offensively they’ve been much improved over that same 10-game stretch too, with a rating of 112.3 (11th in the league).
This gives them the best net rating in the NBA during this time (+11.1), while they also rank fifth in assist percentage too (65.1 percent). The ball is moving and the defensive play is clicking, yet the Magic don’t have all of the wins they should have to show for these fantastic improvements.
That is what makes them the most frustrating team to watch in the NBA right now. They face the Philadelphia 76ers next, a team hoping to come out of the East. They’ll probably win by 20. Then they’ll face the Dallas Mavericks and Grizzlies, which they’ll lose by 30 points combined.
Actually that’s not true; they’ll probably drop both (one in overtime) and lose by a point on each occasion to take this confusing stretch of their season to new depths. If they make the playoffs all will be forgiven, but there is a chance here to get a more favorable matchup when the postseason begins. Then again, taking the straightforward route has never been this team’s style.