When they take the court Monday night against the Kings, Orlando will be looking to move on from the heartbreaking loss they incurred Friday in Phoenix.
Despite establishing a multiple possession lead in the game’s final moments they were unable to seal the deal, ultimately falling in the first game of an extended road trip. Forget about it and move on, right?
Well … maybe not so fast.
The game’s closing stages featured a series of moments from an Orlando team that just refused to put themselves in a winning position. Nothing was so bad that it can be pointed to as the sole reason for the loss, but taken collectively they paint a picture of a team navigating unfamiliarity, indecisiveness, and a handful of brain implosions.
Orlando have to learn from these moments. If they don’t, the team can expect to remain locked in familiar grooves and humming a played-out tune. For a side already with a thin margin for error, decision-making and execution is paramount.
Let’s dive in and unpack the horrors experienced in the desert. Goggles on.
58.1 seconds remain: The one where Booker gets free for a three-pointer
Up four with less than a minute to play against one of the league’s worst teams is certainly a position you would like to think Orlando could win from. However, this defensive sequence is where things first go awry. Starting on the low post, Devin Booker uses a pair of screens to receive the ball at the top of the arc. Evan Fournier slightly overplays the second but is able to recover, and the sequence settles with 22 remaining on the shot clock. Only four clicks later Magic fans will be filled with the recognizable dread of an imminent collapse.
Fournier chooses not to ice Booker, positioning his feet in such a way that gives the opposing guard a choice of the right sideline or the center of the floor. He takes the more dangerous option, angling back to the middle with the plans of using a Deandre Ayton screen. At this point Nikola Vucevic decides against either a hard or soft hedge, instead staying under and effectively zoning the pick in the free-throw circle. If Ricky Rubio were the ball handler in this situation it would have been a smart decision; instead, Booker is able to take advantage of the space created when Fournier gets momentarily hung up on the Ayton bump, drilling a triple that no Magic player is able to legitimately contest.
None of the mistakes made by Orlando here are particularly egregious -- players misnavigate screens all the time! -- although they do coalesce in an obviously damaging manner. If they had their time again, Fournier probably chooses to push the right-handed Booker towards the sideline, denying him his preferred dribble-and-gather motion into a jumper. Vooch probably plays the pick more aggressively, aiming to shrink the shooter’s space and trusting in the defensive rotations behind him should Ayton slip to the rim. Fournier probably hopes he gets his right leg over the screen cleanly, allowing him to challenge the shot.
That’s a lot of ‘probably.’ That they didn’t do any of these, however, speaks to the current limitations of the team. For a rotation stretched exceedingly thin, execution matters. Every decision matters. Come the end of the game, this sequence mattered.
52.1 seconds remain: The one where Fultz turns it over
This play is the one that most will be thinking of when pouring one out for the win-that-got-away, and the one that Markelle Fultz himself has already spent plenty of time pondering. It featured obviously bad decision-making and signaled the end of Orlando’s lead. In retrospect, it’s effectively Phoenix’s game-winner.
Fultz brings the ball over halfcourt, quickly switching directions and going back to his right. A pair of staggered screens, first from Wes Iwundu and then from Vucevic, provides him with space and a step on a switching Ayton. Fultz accelerates and drives hard to the basket, looking for all money like he’s about to either attack the rim or push through the lane and force the defense to rotate.
Instead, neither happens. He just stops.
That moment of indecision is where the play fails, even if it takes another few heartbeats for the turnover to manifest. The pause allows the 6-11 Ayton to recover and crowd Orlando’s point guard. Fultz looks first for the arriving roll by Vucevic, but bypasses this in favor of a kickout to the top of the key where Fournier will be recovering to. Booker puts himself in a good position by maintaining his defensive triangle, and when the pass is lobbed up with the left hand a little too delicately he pounces, stealing the ball and pushing out in transition.
It’s commonly said about basketball that ‘hesitation is death.’ For Fultz and the Magic, this sequence proved the absolute veracity of that statement. His indecisiveness and deference to senior teammates, while somewhat admirable in sentiment, ultimately doomed the side in this contest. It’s another sequence Orlando would desperately like to do-over.
However, we also shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. For all intents and purposes this may as well be Fultz’s rookie season, with the progress he’s shown to date everything and more that the Magic would have been hoping for. It was also just one bad play in a game filled with plenty of positive moments, one that he’s already vowed to use as a learning experience. It’s a shame that it happened in such a high-profile and costly moment.
40.3 seconds remain: The one where Orlando loses Booker in transition
If the previous mistake was the result of a player trying to do a little too much, this one is instead an example of sloppiness and poor communication. With Booker surging after the steal, both Fournier and Terrence Ross are within a step of the dangerous scorer, with the pair even in a position to seal and soft-trap him at the halfway line while the defense recovers. Instead, both drift back into a help position, a moment of miscommunication that sees the Suns cutters -- Kelly Oubre and Mikal Bridges -- effectively covered, but that also inadvertently grants Booker a healthy dose of daylight. Fournier recovers too late, Fultz can’t get into the play, and Phoenix’s young star doesn’t hesitate in pulling up and drilling another huge three. Suns by two in a game the Magic won’t again score in.
This is a messy sequence. In isolation, it’s one in which the mistakes can be pretty easily explained and even forgiven. Players are scrambling, making split-second decisions as they look to put out fires all over the court. However, in the context of this contest the failure of both Fournier and Ross to jam the transition ball-handler and slow the play -- particularly when it’s the opposition’s most deadly pull-up shooter with his hands on the rock! -- was a backbreaker. Again, for a team down on troops and talent these are the decisions they simply have to get right.
35.4 seconds remain: The one where Vucevic turns it over
Click here for video, courtesy of the Last Two-Minute Report.
Coming out of a timeout the Magic had a chance to reclaim the ascendancy. Fultz begins the sequence by inbounding to Vucevic, who quickly reverses the ball before it’s funneled along to Fournier’s hands. He probes right before pulling back out and waiting on a pick from his center. With the Phoenix defenders already out of place, Fournier finds himself doubled by Booker and Rubio. Vooch slips to the rim, and with Ayton effectively out of the play, Booker is forced to recover to the big guy in the post. Orlando now have the mismatch they want, and Vucevic begins to make his move with the shorter defender posted up and nine seconds still on the shot clock.
You’d be forgiven for liking Vooch’s chances in this situation. You’d also be forgiven for thinking that the referees missed a foul call that would have put him on the line (apparently the league’s two-minute report admits as much). Instead, Orlando coughed it up. As Vucevic begins to back down Booker the smaller guard hacks at the ball, clearly contacting an arm and causing a slight misstep from the Montenegrin big man. Rubio uses this moment to leave Fournier and double down, poking the ball loose and coming away with it despite Vooch’s pleas.
It’s probably still fair to have expected Vucevic to score on this possession. He probably could have initially established deeper post position. Fournier probably could have done a better job of squeezing the angle of the entry pass to help with this. Vooch probably could have moved on an outmatched opponent more decisively. He probably could have swiveled left to take advantage of the empty space, instead of relying on his pet right hand and allowing Rubio to interject. Probably, probably, probably.
Once again, it’s a lot of ‘probably’. The fact remains that none of these things happened. Instead, Orlando’s execution faltered and the team surrendered their best chance of securing this much-needed road win.
15.3 seconds remain: The one where Fournier forces it
Lest you think the Magic might not subject you to yet more trauma, the team had one last chance to extend the game after Rubio split a pair of free-throws. Iwundu was the player charged with kicking-starting the possession, and things almost came undone as early as the inbounds pass (classic Magic). Fortunately Oubre only got fingertips to the ball, and Fournier was able to gather at the top of the arc. A pair of screens from Vucevic means that he’s being directly guarded by Ayton, a fact that immediately has Orlando’s swingman salivating. He takes two hard dribbles right, flashes a lacking-in-energy pump-fake that Ayton rightly stays down on, and then leans hard into an off-balance three-point attempt that gets nothing but air (because of the breeze in the arena, right?). The refs swallow their whistles and that’s all she wrote.
Fournier had a handful of better options, but nothing that screams total malpractice. Vucevic was noticeably open rolling to the hoop, but even then the Magic still would have been playing from behind and hoping for missed free-throws. Hunting the three-point attempt was likely the right call, but why he forced it when he did instead of resetting with over 10 seconds remaining and the shot clock turned off is a mystery. Perhaps the non-shooters in Fultz and Iwundu, who were pretty much unguarded on the entire sequence, would have made any such play too difficult. Either way, now we’ll never know.
It was yet another dispiriting possession in a sequence of them for Orlando, another play defined by misguided decisions and poor execution. As the final nail in the coffin, this one irrefutably resigned the team to the loss column.
The final 60 seconds in Phoenix were a bitter pill to swallow for both the Magic and fans of the team. Already hurting from injuries and the absence of key players the team self-sabotaged, repeatedly misplaying sequences down the stretch as they watched the lead slip through their fingers. At this point in time the margin for error is evidently slim, so it’s of absolute importance that the side treat every possession as an opportunity to play smart basketball.
To do otherwise is a recipe for heartbreak.