It wasn’t the day the music died — Tuesday was the day the Magic died.
Many California dreams have been born in Los Angeles, but for an Eastern Conference team on a late-season West Coast swing, visions of an NBA playoff berth came to rest against the Lakers. It’s time to think about the future for a group which started the season so brightly but received an NBA education in the middle of a cold and unforgiving winter.
The Orlando Magic played the Golden State Warriors well this season — fairly well last month in northern Florida, extremely well on Monday night in Oracle Arena. The Magic led the Warriors at halftime in the Sunshine State, and they were right there — within one bucket — heading into the final few possessions of Monday’s game in Oakland.
Much like the Milwaukee Bucks, a young team with lots of potential, the Magic showcase occasional bursts of brilliance. They can stand up to the Warriors, emboldened by the prospect of going up against the best. The Bucks handled the Warriors better than most of the league. The Magic didn’t quite rise to Milwaukee’s standards, but the Magic didn’t get run out of the building the way a lot of teams have been at the hands of Stephen Curry this season.
In certain moments, the Magic can amaze with their skill set. Their young core is that promising. Even though the Tobias Harris trade was a conspicuous mistake, the resources in this organization are still abundant enough to suggest that brighter days lie ahead.
Tuesday night, Orlando was reminded that the future will be governed more by a long-term orientation than a short-term track.
If any hopes of a 2016 playoff berth still existed when the Magic took the court against the Lakers, they were reduced to a flicker after 48 futile defensive minutes in Staples Center. Torched for 39 points in the third quarter and unable to deny that they didn’t bring enough energy to the building one night after pushing the Warriors to the limit, the young Magic learned all too painfully about the difficulty of a late-season back-to-back three time zones from home. It was easier, with rest, to pour everything into the attempt to beat the champions on Monday. Getting up for the worst team in the Western Conference proved to be more difficult.
The Magic admitted as much when this loss was over.
“We played like we were tired, like we didn’t want to win,” said Orlando’s Evan Fournier. “On good nights, we’re full of focus on what’s going on on the floor. It’s very frustrating. We should have won.”
Elfrid Payton added, “We didn’t have a lot of energy, and it kind of showed. If you look back a couple of games, we also lacked energy.”
For veteran teams — rosters stacked with guys who have been around the block — this would be a searing indictment of performance and preparation. (Cough, Houston Rockets, cough, cough…) For the Magic, it’s a fact of life in the NBA. Young players, thrown together in an organization built for a more distant tomorrow — beyond the realm of the quick fix or a “win now or else” mentality — simply have to absorb these kinds of experiences before they understand what it takes to handle them properly.
It’s true that Orlando started this season 19-13 and had what appeared to be a very good chance of making the postseason. However, 32 games don’t encompass the totality of the NBA grind. The middle of winter — the accumulated stress and strain — unmasks teams built for the long haul, and the Magic didn’t figure to be one of them. That they couldn’t maintain their bright autumnal start in the heart of winter doesn’t reflect negatively on them. It merely affirms the working of the seasons, the cycle of youth and treachery, in the NBA.
The Lakers have languished for much of the season. Unlike the Magic, they didn’t start well. Unlike the Magic, they weren’t coached very well in the early months of the 2015-2016 campaign. While Orlando ran short on fuel Tuesday night, the Lakers’ young pups had fresh legs… because Byron Scott had quite appallingly limited their minutes earlier in the season.
D’Angelo Russell played a lively 36 minutes, not only scoring 27 points but committing only two turnovers. Julius Randle frolicked for 23 points and 11 boards. The Lakers had energy… ironically, because of all their coach’s missteps earlier in the season. Orlando poured so much into the early part of its season, and so much into the Warriors on Monday. Answering the call on the back end of a back-to-back in California was too much of an ask for the Magic.
Understanding what went wrong will not lift this team to the playoffs — the Magic are now six out of the eighth spot in the loss column with only 19 games left. The goal must now be to translate this experience into offseason workouts and conscious preparation for the 2016-2017 season.
Orlando hoped to make the playoffs this season, but that wasn’t an ironclad expectation. The important thing for the Magic is that their energy level can’t go “POOF!” in similar situations when the 2017 season hits the 50- or 60-game mark in the later hours of winter.