By all rights, the 1-5 road trip should have signaled the end to the Magic’s season. They were who the numbers suggested they were, an overrated team that’s bad on both ends, that can’t shoot to save their lives and can’t protect the rim despite playing two of the league’s (theoretically) best rim protectors.
Losing their two shooting guards to injuries was more than the reason for their bad play, it was also an excuse to start the tank in earnest. As frustrating as it is, going through a painful tear-down would have been a reasonable response to the Magic’s fading playoff hopes.
...and then they win a game. Not just win a game, but win convincingly, outscoring Milwaukee every quarter in a 112-96 shellacking of the Bucks, an all-around effort on both ends of the court. Elfrid Payton played over 37 minutes to make up for the absence of Evan Fournier and Jodie Meeks, scoring an efficient 20 points to go with 4 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals. Jeff Green played arguably his best game of the entire season, not just scoring and passing, but leading the team with his hustle plays and smart decisions.
The Bucks feast on transition opportunities. The Magic only turned the ball over 9 times. The Bucks feast in the paint. The Magic gave up just 35 paint points on only 46% shooting. Step-for-step, the Magic followed their game plan perfectly, walling off the paint to prevent guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo from doing what they do best, switching to force jump shots instead of layups, and controlling the ball to stop the Bucks from running all over them.
Several players spoke after about the importance of sticking to that plan, as did Coach Frank Vogel, saying, “Guys were committed to it tonight, they followed the game plan to a T. We had to protect the paint against this basketball team.”
They’re also well-aware of their inconsistency. When asked how to overcome it, Vogel said “Continue to work. Continue to work, and bring focus, and energy, and a positive attitude. Continue to believe in each other.”
This, even more than just the losing, is the most frustrating part about watching this team, and I imagine that goes double for the guys actually trying to play on it. Every once in a while, the Magic look like a real basketball team. Every once in a while, they execute their game plan perfectly, and even when they’re not making shots, like in that game on Friday (just 29% shooting from deep), they find other ways to make their hay.
That’s a lot more fun! It’s more fun to play, it’s more fun to watch, and it’s more fun to cover as a member of the media, so when they play like this, I can’t help but try to believe in them again, against my better judgment. If I’m being honest with myself, I know that this is probably a short-lived bout of success. They’ll probably get spanked by the Warriors on Sunday, and they’ll probably disappoint against a sputtering Chicago Bulls team, in a game they desperately need to win to try to catch up to a team in the Eastern Conference morass.
This temptation is likely the same that the front office feels, or at least how I imagine they feel. Rob Hennigan and company might be lame ducks, but when wins like this come around, when everything comes together the way it’s supposed to, I can imagine them telling themselves that, y’know, maybe it’ll work out. It probably won’t...but there’s a chance, right?
For now, I’m a believer again. Maybe this time they figured something out. It’ll probably last just a day before it comes crashing down to Earth, but I’d rather spend my weekend thinking about what the Magic could be rather than what they could have been.