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The good Magic, and the very, very bad Magic

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The “Bad” Magic stick around a lot longer than the “Good” Magic.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s review the GameFlow of each of the Magic’s first 8 games. Shoutouts to popcornmachine.net for their GameFlow charts that track what players are on the court for which stretches of the game while also identifying big runs by both teams.

Game 1 vs. Miami: Orlando starts the season off strong with separate runs of 8-2 and 12-2, spanning a total of about 9 minutes through the middle part of the first quarter, featuring the starters vs. starters and bench vs. bench respectively. However, in the third quarter they are outscored 30-16, and the Heat tack on a 9-1 run at the start of the 4th to seal the game away.

Game 2 @ Detroit: The first quarter was played fairly evenly, but a disastrous 30-9 second quarter quickly sends the game out of control. A 32-20 third quarter for Detroit puts the game firmly in garbage time territory the rest of the way.

Game 3 @ Cleveland: A mostly even start to the game is marred by a 24-7 run over 7 minutes spanning the first and second quarters, putting the Cavs up by as much as 22. The Magic rally in the 4th, bringing an 18 point deficit within 3 over about 8 minutes, though the Cavs would regain control and get the 6-point win.

Game 4 @ Philadelphia: The Magic and Sixers exchange runs in the first quarter, but Philly takes a 2-point deficit and turns it into an 18 point lead, a 20 point swing over about 11 minutes starting late in the first. Orlando’s offense explodes out of halftime, using 41 points to temporarily erase their 14-point halftime deficit, and after exchanging short runs at the start of the fourth they hang on to get the 2-point win.

Game 5 vs. Sacramento: The Kings run out to an 8-point lead in the first quarter, which they hold into the second, but Orlando goes on runs of 11-0, 15-5, and 16-6 in the second and third quarters to take the game back, and come out ahead in a low-scoring 4th to get the 8-point win.

Game 6 vs. Washington: A somewhat back-and-forth game the whole night, defined by whoever was unable to score at any particular stretch. Every small run the Magic had was matched and exceeded by the Wizards until a bench-fueled 16-0 burst in the fourth quarter brought the game back within reach. The Magic would hang on for the 2-point win.

Game 7 @ Chicago: A high-paced, high scoring affair lasted for both sides for about 6 minutes before Orlando’s offense sputtered and Chicago kept on rolling. A 19-2 run, which became a 31-5 run over about 11 minutes, put the Magic in a big hole. They managed to keep the score within single digits at halftime, but another massive run, this time 22-3 in the third, would end their hopes of a comeback.

Game 8 vs. Minnesota: A miserable 39-17 first quarter puts the Magic in a massive hole, and the deficit gets as high as 30 points before halftime. They manage to whittle the lead down to 18 over the first 6 minutes of the third, and then from 24 to 11 over about 6 minutes of the fourth, but there wasn’t enough time or energy to keep the run going.

By my count, two of these games were total blowouts, where Orlando wasn’t even close to having a chance at winning the game (Detroit, Chicago). In both of those games, they were crippled by gigantic runs in which they could neither score nor stop the opponent from scoring across entire quarters-worth of time. In one game, Orlando suffered a relatively small deficit of -12 and put together a stretch of excellent basketball to win the game (Washington). In the other five games, Orlando had one short stretch of inspired play, balanced against whole quarters of futility on both ends of the court.

In summary, seven games with death-spiral levels of bad runs, and six games with shorter bursts of transcendent offense and defense (by the Magic’s standards, at least). When they give up those runs, they usually last for 10 to 12 minutes, sometimes all in one quarter. When they go on those runs of their own, they usually last about six or eight minutes. Most of the time, they have one good run in them.

In other words, the Magic have an accounting problem. Looking like a very good team for six minutes at a time and then looking like a very, very bad team for another 12 minutes is not going to win very many games.

Subjectively, it feels like the Magic’s games are much more swingy in this way than other teams’. The NBA is a game of runs, and every team experiences them, but Orlando’s feel more extreme, especially when they’re on the losing end of them. I don’t have a lot of data to back this up (one way I’d compare teams is to look at the difference between their average largest deficits or leads and their average margins of victory, so if anyone knows where to find that kind of data let me know), but one way we might pseudo-objectively compare is to use InPredictable.com’s win probabilities.

Looking at the list of Orlando’s eight games, you’ll see they’re sorted by an “excitement” score, which measures how much the game swings back and forth in terms of each team’s chances of winning the game. The median “excitement score” of the 120 games they’ve measured is about 6.3, so by that standard three of the Magic’s eight games had a relatively high “excitement,” which is to say they were particularly swingy.

That doesn’t sound like an argument that the Magic are a swingy team, but the excitement score doesn’t capture a couple of the Magic’s larger comebacks. The Cleveland game registered as a low-excitement game because the Cavaliers were still heavily favored to win, even up just three points late in the game after the Magic’s rally. The most recent game against Minnesota didn’t register a large change in Orlando’s win probability because the deficit was so massive to begin with. Being down by 30 halfway through the game makes you a huge underdog, and being down by 11 with 5 minutes to go...still makes you a huge underdog.

Regardless of how they compare against the rest of the association, the Magic clearly have a serious problem right now. Why is it happening? Well, that’s a complicated question that deserves its own article, but the short version is that a combination of chemistry, fit, and under-performing players comes together all at the same time to turn the Magic into the worst team in the league for 12-minute stretches. If this pattern keeps up, we’ll dive deeper into this issue as the season goes on.