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Magic players were reluctant to admit it, but fatigue had set in against the Pacers

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In front of his locker after Friday night’s game against the Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic was reluctant to blame the lack of energy his squad played with on the team’s recent hectic schedule.

“It is what it is man, you can’t complain about it,” Vucevic said. “Nobody is going to be like, they’ve played a lot of games - let’s go easy on them. We have everything that we need here to recover (and be ready to play).”

“I don’t think that’s an excuse at all, whether that’s there (fatigue) or not,” second-year forward Jonathan Isaac added when asked about the stretch Orlando is currently playing through.

Both Vucevic and Isaac were just being consistent with the mentality that their head coach has tried to instill in his team this season: no moral victories, no excuses.

However, it sure seemed like at a very distinct moment during last night’s contest, the events that have played out over the course of the last two weeks collectively all came together to down the Magic at home against the Pacers.

The NBA schedule-makers haven’t been kind to the Magic during this current stretch of games, a stretch that began two weeks ago with a five-game road-trip on the West Coast.
From there, the Magic came back east to play three games in four days (beginning with their game in Miami last Tuesday night). The Magic took the Denver Nuggets to overtime Wednesday night, ultimately dropping an emotional contest in which they were charged with four technical fouls.

And this all culminated Friday night inside the Amway Center as the Magic clawed their way back from an early double-digit deficit. Orlando cut Indiana’s lead to a mere four points before completely falling flat, allowing the Pacers to go on a 15-2 game-deciding run.

“I have to see that stretch again because it was a blur,” Aaron Gordon said about the Pacers’ run in the third quarter. “It’s a little frustrating, but it’s nothing to lose our minds over. I believe in this team. I believe we’re a good team. We have to stick with it.”

Magic players may not have been willing to recognize it, but the fact remains nonetheless: the Magic were tired last night.

From my perspective, there’s no denying that physical fatigue had officially set-in for the Magic against the Pacers. Compounding their physical fatigue, it was also apparent that some of the guys were still emotionally fatigued from Wednesday’s heart-wrenching loss to the Nuggets.

“I’m not sure,” Gordon said when asked in the locker room why his team looked so flat Friday. “We had an off-day yesterday, so you would expect that we would come in with more energy.”

And I don’t think you can deny that the Magic were attempting to overcome some mental fatigue against the Pacers as well, from the opening tip to the final sound of the buzzer. For one of the few times this year, the ball just wasn’t moving cleanly for the Magic on offense. They weren't consistently sharing the basketball, they were forcing bad shots off one pass (or none). The Magic committed 14 turnovers, which isn’t an egregious number (just slightly above average for them), but many of those were careless unforced errors (off-target passes, dribbling into traffic, etc.).

Even Magic head coach Steve Clifford, who regularly deflects (sometimes rather demonstratively) anything that remotely seems like an excuse for why his team didn’t perform in a particular contest, acknowledged last night after the game that his team may have been overly fatigued against the Pacers.

“ (It’s) possible. Listen, we’ve had a tough schedule,” Clifford responded when I asked him about his team’s recent stretch of games. “What you mentioned, and what I just talked to them about (the Magic players), is that it’s not getting any easier now. We’re going to be gone for a week here, and then we’ll be back. And then we have a six-game west coast trip again.”

“It’s also part of this league, and we’ve got to be able to play,” Clifford added. “That’s why playing smart, and moving the ball when you need to - that’s when you’ve got to develop the habits, so when you’re not at optimum energy, that you’re (still) playing a smart game.”

Friday was just one step back, a drop in the bucket within a part of Orlando’s schedule that we all anticipated would test them to their limits. The team momentarily lost their identity, they forget what has recently worked for them offensively against teams like the Lakers, the Heat, and even the Nuggets.

But the NBA show must go on; for the Magic, that means the team will head off to Texas on Monday to take on the Mavericks. Following their one-game stop in the Lone Star State, the Magic will travel south of the border to Mexico for two games (they will actually be considered the home team in those contests).

How quickly the Magic can put this game against the Pacers behind them will be critical. They need to watch the film and focus on some specific problem areas that can be resolved: shot selection, ball-movement, high pick-and-roll defense, etc.

But mostly, they just need to get their treatments and some rest.

“We’ve just got to get our rest now,” Gordon told reporters. “It’s going to be a day or two before we play again. We’re going to have to practice, recover, and then come out and win this next one.”

In a sense, everyone seemed like they were on the same page last night with their post-game comments. Vucevic was right, no one in this league is going to feel sorry for you because of your schedule. Coach Clifford was spot on as well, Orlando’s schedule isn’t getting any less hectic anytime soon.

Rest, recover, move on to the next one; that’s this league in a nutshell. There’s always a positive to draw from the NBA schedule as well - another game is just around the corner.