A learning experience
Up eight with just 42 seconds to go, things began to unravel for the Magic. Willie Green, defending a Mario Chalmers three, was called for a questionable foul, giving the Miami guard a chance to cut the Magic lead down to as few as five. He made two of the three foul shots, cutting the lead to six. The Magic seemed to be sitting in a good spot.
After Nik Vučević split a pair at the line, Dwyane Wade made a big bucket; the lead still holding at five. A turnover by Vučević, and a three by Henry Walker, cut the lead down to two. A pair of free throws split by Victor Oladipo, and another miraculous three by Walker, sent the game into overtime.
For the second time in February, the Magic let one slip out of their grasp. They had the win all but sealed, but fell apart, oh so slowly and oh so painfully.
Following the game, coach James Borrego said that he was proud of his bunch for their fight and how they competed on the defensive end.
"We will learn from that, but we are not going anywhere, we're not changing out philosophy, and we're not changing our identity. We're just going to get better and better at it," said Borrego.
Vučević, who played a big role in the game both late in the fourth and in overtime, took the blame for the loss. "I think I made some big mistakes at the end of the game and in overtime. Some of the shots I think I should've made. I'm one of the best players on this team, and I should've made those plays. I feel like I let my team down. It's tough, we had them where we wanted to, just couldn't pull it out."
The fourth-year center also said, "you have to think about those," referring to the loss to the Heat, and Orlando's loss a few weeks ago to the Chicago Bulls, another game where the Magic saw a nearly double-digit lead crumble late.
"You pretty much have it and let it slip away," said Vučević. "It's tough; sports are sports, we've all seen a lot of close games and stuff like this happens and you've got to try and not have a lot of these. We've had two of these in a short period of time and we just have to learn from it and grow from it."
Oladipo said it was a "tough loss" and that the team is "sick of being up and giving the game away like we did." The second-year guard added that the coaching staff told them that they were going to get better down the stretch, and better as a team overall. "We've just got to continue our team defensive scheme and continue to pack the paint like we're ding; do a great job of helping one another. We've just got to finish down the stretch."
"It's a process for a young team for every aspect of the game that you can think of," said Oladipo when asked about how the team is learning how to close out games. "We're continuing to learn. We'll get better at it down the stretch and do what it takes with what we need to do to accomplish our goal, and that's to win. At the end of the day, it was a tough loss today, but we'll continue to keep getting better. It's a long, long journey and there's still a lot of season left. We've just got to continue to keep grinding."
Green added that it's "growing pains" for the young Magic group.
"We've just got to do a better job of closing out games... The ball didn't bounce our way and we've got to learn from it and get better," said the veteran.
In the end, it's a loss that's going to hang with the Magic for a while, but one that could prove to be huge for their success in the future. Every young team has these growing pains, and the only way to get better and find ways to succeed in situations like these are to experience them multiple times. While it may sting right now, and it might sting tomorrow, the loss could prove extremely beneficial down the line.
Since Borrego's promotion to head coach, the Magic have looked like a completely different team on the defensive end of the floor. After giving up over 100 points in 14 straight games, the Magic have turned the ship around, allowing over 97 points just twice, and under 95 three times. In the seven games Borrego has coached, the team has allowed just 96.5 points per 100 possessions, good enough for fourth in the league behind the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, and Toronto Raptors, three playoff-bound teams.
While the stats say the improvement is big, you can see it on the court in their play as well.
They're pressuring the ball better, and forcing teams into more contested shots than before. They're also doing a good job of getting out to shooters and forcing them to dribble into the paint, where one of Vučević or Dewayne Dedmon always is to alter their shot.
They still has some issues: they close out too hard sometimes, they over rotate and are susceptible to good ball movement. Some of this is still learning the defensive system that's being put in place, and should continue to clear up as the team gets more practice time in.
For a team that has talked on multiple occasions throughout the season about wanting to have their backbone be on the defensive end, the improvement is welcomed. The guys are buying in, and Coach Borrego is clearly happy with the things that the team is doing on that end of the floor. They have a lot of players who are fit to be feisty defenders, and with more time could, potentially turn this team into one of the better defensive squads in the league.