Let’s talk about deja vu. A late-night road contest. A final-minute lead against a weak Western Conference foe. Defensive miscues. Offensive turnovers. The gut-punch feeling that is falling behind. Sound familiar?
It should. This is basically the exact same script that doomed Orlando in their previous start against the Suns. Instead, this time the Kings were playing the foil to the established character of the Magic: late-game, choke-job specialists. Oh man, not again!
Thankfully, Monday was the night that the basketball gods decided to bestow their favor on the Central Floridians. Despite a series of hauntingly familiar miscues the Magic were able to exorcise the ghosts of recent failure, with a fortunate bucket from Aaron Gordon securing the victory.
75.0 seconds remain: The one where Bjelica buries a three-pointer … again
With 1:17 left on the clock the Magic came out of a time-out with a healthy seven-point cushion. Even on the road and playing in a building where success had eluded them for a few years it should have been enough. However, watching the game it was impossible to shake the nagging sense in the back of one’s head that we’d somehow seen this before. Like, ‘last game’ before. It took only a matter of seconds for that sense to intensify.
Nemanja Bjelica had been blisteringly hot for the Kings all night, hitting seven threes to this point on his way to a career-high 34 points. He torched an out-of-position Khem Birch early and then gave Nikola Vucevic fits later when Sacramento went small with him at center. No matter who he lined up against he seemed to be able to find the bottom of the net, so it made sense that head coach Luke Walton would look for the long-range bomber in desperate need of quick points. That’s precisely what happened.
Steve Clifford and the Magic predicted this, and ensured they had Aaron Gordon matched up on the dangerous forward. They were ready! The Kings went ahead and ran a play that presented literally zero options other than Bjelica; they genuinely would have had a hard time inbounding the ball to anyone else if their target hadn’t been able to spring free. So how did it happen?
Bjelica starts in the opposite corner before curling into the lane. This is all done with the intention of using a pair off down screens, first from De’Aaron Fox (who is the first diversionary action) and then from Marvin Bagley (who is a big body they stuck at the nail). Gordon dodges the first pick without losing a step, but momentarily gets hung up on the second when Bagley clearly hop-steps his hip into the trailing defender. This separation provides Bjelica with just enough daylight to spring his shot, hastened by his preferred pick-up as he’s moving left. He gets all nylon and Orlando’s lead is sliced to four.
Gordon did a solid job on this sequence, undone only by his inability to solve a moving screen. All the other Magic defenders stay at home on their assignments, which is understandable considering the circumstances. You perhaps would have liked to see Terrence Ross leave Harrison Barnes, the inbounder, particularly when it’s clear that AG has lost a step. You can see that he briefly thinks to do this but momentarily hesitates, and that split-second is enough to remove the opportunity (as I said last time, in basketball hesitation is death). Both Vucevic and Markelle Fultz, the next closest defenders, choose to understandably (and rightly) stay at home, which means there’s no other resistance.
It’s hard to be too frustrated with this sequence. The Magic effectively matched up the possession, and Gordon was almost good enough to close it down. Still, it illustrates both the importance of flawless execution and good ol’ fashioned basketball luck. Usually teams that work hard on the first can generate some of the second.
57.0 seconds remain: The one where Vucevic gets called for traveling
There’s not much to say about this one except that the finish lacked in that all important execution. The Magic run a set that starts in a 1-4 flat as a means of generating some initial movement and then a pick-and-roll action for Vucevic and Evan Fournier at the top of the arc. And guess what: it works! The only part that doesn’t is putting the basketball in the hoop.
Fournier gets a step on Fox after both Gordon and Vucevic set usable, if not entirely solid, picks. Orlando’s two-guard accelerates hard into space, forcing a Sacramento rotation from the middle. This leaves a gaping hole in the key that Vooch correctly rolls into, and for which Fournier obliges and hits him with a perfect dump pass. All the big man has to do is go straight up and flush it down. However, worried about help defense and a potential blocked shot he hesitates (there’s that word again!), shuffling his feet and forcing the referees to call a travel. Turnover.
You really would like your All-Star center and franchise foundation to dunk the ball there. Preferably, with authority. Instead, he allowed himself to be spooked by two players in Bagley and Bjelica who are far from noted shot-blockers. Considering how open he was this shouldn’t even have been a consideration in the first place. Put simply, Vucevic has to be better in situations like this.
49.3 seconds remain: The one where Fox gets to the hoop
After the turnover it took the Kings less than ten seconds to make it a one-possession game, this time in decidedly simple fashion. Fox positions himself to the left-hand side of the arc, waving away screens to isolate against Fultz. He feits left before crossing over right, takes two hard dribbles and two long steps to get all the way to the basket, finishing softly at the basket. Magic by just two.
Fultz actually played this sequence relatively well. While he didn’t funnel Fox in a particular direction, he stepped up quickly by moving his feet in time with the speedy ball-handler. Unfortunately he didn’t hold his ground at the point of contact, with Fox’s space-clearing shoulder bumping him all the way over the baseline and well out of the play. What’s glaring about the sequence, however, is the lack of help defense.
Gordon is glued tight to Bjelica and never in a position to impact the play anyway. Fournier looks to help off Buddy Hield but holds his position when the play goes the other way. That leaves Vucevic and Terrence Ross, neither of whom end up impacting the play. Ross spends the possession in no man’s land, not in a position to close out on his assignment but also not in a position to slide into a help rotation. He halfheartedly lunges at Fox when it’s too late, but all this does is emphasize that with greater attention to detail and anticipation he perhaps could have inserted himself into the sequence.
Vucevic’s inaction is perhaps even worse. Despite being fully aware of Fultz’s isolation against Fox he positions his feet in a way that has him looking in the opposite direction, without a head turn until it’s far too late. He’s worried about the action with Bjelica, and rightfully so, but he’s so singularly focused on this that he loses sight of the real danger. He surrenders the middle of the floor, and in doing so makes Fultz’s job exceedingly difficult. It’s another bad sequence from the player the Magic need the most.
23.8 seconds remain: The one where defense beats offense
On the next trip down the court the Magic again go to their preferred action, the 2-5 pick-and-roll with Fournier and Vucevic. The other three players clear out, and Orlando’s veteran duo go to work. Again, it works. Fournier flips the screen and then snakes his dribble, leaving Fox in his dust as he accelerates hard at Bagley. The Frenchman would undoubtedly have liked his chances, particularly as he had finished a similar drive only minutes before. However, Sacramento are able to make a good basketball play, with Fox recovering and swiping Fournier’s attempt from behind and Bagley in position to push the bouncing ball away from the immediate vicinity.
A scramble ensues, and Orlando actually do really well through Fultz’s hustle to get their hands back on the leather. A tie-up on the floor leads ultimately to a jump-ball that doesn’t go in their favor, but similar plays have ended in either fouls or time outs that would have benefited the first team to the ball. Not in this instance, though, and Sacramento now have a chance to knot the game up or take the lead. The Magic again effectively executed 99% of a possession, but were undone by a good basketball play. It happens, which is why it’s so important that every possession is maximized -- a team needs to be able to take these punches and still recover.
15.8 seconds remain: The one where Fox gets to the hoop … again
De'Aaron Fox had Markelle Fultz lost with this hesi pic.twitter.com/ghJ0WXaBJe— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) January 14, 2020
This next sequence hurts, because the Magic are again so close to making smart reads and good plays. However, the little things again go by the wayside: communication, anticipation, rotations, execution. Let’s unpack it.
Sacramento draw up a two-man game with Fox and Bjelica, because of course. Fultz and Gordon actually do an excellent job of initially defending this action, with Fultz fighting over the screen and never losing contact, and Gordon hedging in a way that puts him in a position to corral or at least challenge the driving Fox. Unfortunately that’s where the positivity ends, as the possession goes from bad to worse.
Firstly, Fultz and Gordon misread each other, with both lunging out after a Fox hesitation dribble to the popping Bjelica. There’s just a complete absence of communication, resulting in a wide-open path to the rack for Fox. I hate to keep piling on the guy, but theoretically Vucevic should be in a position to help. Surprise: he’s not. He refuses to untether from Bagley despite seeing the play develop, only rolling over to meet the now soaring point guard when it’s too late. He contests the shot from underneath the hoop (which never works), and then compounds the situation by committing a sloppy foul. Fox’s high runner bounces in, he calmly drops the free-throw, and now Orlando trail in a game they once lead by 17. Magic fans are comforted only by the return of the familiar existential dread that comes with the position.
1.1 seconds remain: The one where Gordon saves the day
Orlando are now presented with a chance for redemption. The best thing about watching this live was knowing that you didn’t need to worry about the team choking. Not because there was any certainty that they would close this game out, but because one can’t choke again after you’ve already choked to death. Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong.
The Magic have their smallest player inbound the ball (because of course) but thankfully the play initiates without drama and the ball ends up in the hands of Fournier. They clear the left side of the floor completely for a 2-5 pick and roll, undoubtedly the play that head coach Steve Clifford drew up. It seems like a good idea, right up until the point that Fournier forcefully waves the screen away to attack out of isolation. Clifford’s pleasure with this decision is evident from space.
Fournier continues with the curious decisions. He crosses back over to his right, accelerating away from space and into the immediate path of a help defender, Bagley, who has sunk back to defend the drive (because of course). Now facing a double team, he never looks for the wide-open Vucevic serving as a release valve (note: his decision to blow up the play now means that the team’s best chance at an offensive rebound is positioned 30 feet from the basket). Instead, he rises up for a short jumper with his immediate defender in his face. It’s only with 2.7 clicks on the clock that he realizes this is a bad idea, contorting out of the shot and shoveling a pass to an unsuspecting Gordon, who has almost randomly wandered into the key (and who was visibly annoyed only seconds before). None of this screams good basketball.
Somewhat miraculously, Gordon makes the most of the situation. He corrals the ball, sets his feet, and turns hard into Cory Joseph, a player he had bullied in the post for a bucket earlier in the quarter. Aware of the dwindling time he releases an awkward shot that he just kind of pushes to the hoop, getting it to go and drawing a foul for good measure. Gordon himself can only chuckle at his good fortune. When he ices the free throw the Magic improbably have regained the lead.
Let’s be clear: this was a bad basketball possession by the Magic, with individual talent and a healthy heaping of luck contributing to bail them out. Let’s hope they look at the play with a critical eye. Celebrating the result but questioning the process is the only way the team is going to improve in similar circumstances down the line.
0.5 seconds remain: The one where the win is secured
Sacramento had one last chance to torture the Magic and their fanbase, with a last-second sideline play the deciding play. It was always going to be a low-percentage play, but it’s one that Orlando covered perfectly. Gordon was basically inside of Bjelica’s jersey, Fournier stuck to the flaring Hield, and Bamba and his enormous wingspan hassled the inbounder. Each Magic player kept their head on a swivel, maintaining awareness of their man and the ball. This meant that when the lob to the hoop was thrown, each player in the vicinity converged on the spot, contesting the pass and then taking away any real shot attempt Barnes may have had. The team executed their collective and individual defensive assignments perfectly and the game was won. Mission accomplished.
In general, the Magic did a better job of executing down the stretch in this contest than they did against the Suns. However, their attention to detail was lacking in key spots, and it almost cost them the game. In fact, it’s pretty easy to argue that they only came away with the win thanks to some outrageous luck. A team doesn’t want to be counting on that sort of circumstance on a consistent basis.
The Magic can be better. They’ll need to be better. They did just enough to avoid heartbreak on this occasion. Let’s hope that next time they close things out a little more decisively.