The way the Orlando Magic’s six-game losing streak started foreshadowed what has become of their biggest struggles over the last two weeks.
As Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton was launching a stepback 3 over Jalen Suggs’ outstretched arm with the Magic up 113-112 with less than 15 seconds remaining, Aaron Nesmith cut from the strong side corner and maneuvered around Bol Bol into the paint to beat multiple Orlando players for an offensive rebound. Nesmith drew a shooting foul, making both free throws to give the Magic a 114-113 road loss that kicked off this slide.
That wasn’t the only time allowing a late offensive rebound hurt the Magic. Nic Claxton’s offensive rebound and putback layup with 1:37 remaining made it more challenging for the Magic to complete a comeback in their 109-102 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Monday.
Those isolated moments have been part of a bigger issue on the defensive glass, which was further exploited when the Magic allowed 14 offensive rebounds for 20 second-chance points in Wednesday’s 125-108 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
“The rebounding obviously hurt us,” coach Jamahl Mosley said. “That’s too much. That’s just levels of effort and focus.”
The Magic started the season as a strong defensive rebounding team at 73% for the league’s ninth-best mark through the first 14 games. That limited the opposing team’s second-chance scoring opportunities — 12.7 per game, which was tied for sixth.
That hasn’t been the case lately.
In Magic’s last eight games (1-7), they’ve recorded a defensive rebounding rate of 69.8%, 23rd in the league during that stretch. That’s led to opponents scoring 15.9 second-chance points (27th since Nov. 16) and is one of the reasons why the team’s defensive rating has fallen to 120.3 (28th) after being 112.7 (21st) in the first 14 games.
This could be troubling for the Magic (5-17) in their back-to-back road games against the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight and Toronto Raptors on Saturday. The Cavs are an above-average offensive rebounding team and Toronto is elite.
“Any time you give a team like that second chances, it’s demoralizing just because a lot of times it’s a make or a foul or some type of points and it’s more you’ve got to defend for longer,” said rookie Paolo Banchero. “You want to limit those opportunities.”
Some of the Magic’s struggles on the defensive boards can be linked to Wendell Carter Jr.’s absence. He’s the team’s lead rebounder on both ends (6.9 defensive and 2.1 offensive rebounds for 9.1 total in 32.9 minutes) and does the best with boxing out.
His 12.2 defensive rebounds chances are the league’s seventh-highest mark and his contested defensive rebounding percentage — defensive rebounds a player grabs when an opponent is within 3.5 feet of the rebounder — of 29.8% is a good mark.
But many of the Magic’s issues extend beyond his absence, which could last for another 1-2 weeks.
They aren’t just falling victim to long rebounds where offensive players may have the advantage after a missed 3, but it can be an opposing big getting an offensive rebound over a guard after switches.
The Magic are getting outworked and outhustled on the interior. They aren’t boxing out well. Too often players have been caught ball-watching — waiting for the ball to come to them instead of finding a body to hit and then going after the ball.
Markelle Fultz could be heard multiple times telling teammates to box out after allowing an offensive rebound against the Hawks.
“It falls down to effort and focus,” Mosley said. “It doesn’t matter who’s in the game, there’s a level of finding a man, putting a body on him, boxing out and going to get the rebound. It can’t be watching the ball go up. And not hitting someone when that thing goes up.”
It’s not just a couple of players who’ve been guilty of this. It’s a team-wide issue, but it’s been most noticeable with Bol Bol, who leads the Magic in defensive rebounding chances (8.8) per game during the losing streak.
He uses his height and length (7-foot-2 with a 7-foot-8 wingspan) to grab rebounds but doesn’t provide enough resistance to stop opponents from grabbing offensive boards.
Sometimes he takes himself out of rebounding positions by trying to block shots instead of staying down. But most times he’s getting outworked — regardless of the players’ height.
Bol’s season-long contested defensive rebounding percentage of 18.7% ranks 128th among the 155 players who’ve played at least 14 games and average at least 5 defensive rebounding chances.
The other players surrounding him in the rankings are mostly wings and guards. His contested defensive rebounding has been worse (13.9%) during the losing streak.
Banchero also hasn’t been as aggressive going after defensive rebounds since returning from a sprained left ankle, averaging 1.75 in his last four games after having 7.5 in his 11 pre-injury games.
He’s not jumping into the fray as much, especially with contested defensive rebounds, averaging 4.3 chances since coming back compared to 11.8 before the injury.
“I’ve been pretty bad on the boards,” Banchero said. “I wouldn’t even say it’s because I’m out of position, the ball is just not falling my way. I’ve got to do the extra work to try to get those boards and stop giving up offensive rebounds. It’s a team effort and we’ve got to lock in on it.”
Offensive rebounding rate is up around the league compared with the previous few seasons.
Teams are willing to crash the offensive glass harder as they’ve noticed they can do so without allowing points in transition. That makes it harder for poor defensive rebounding teams because they’re being punished for not boxing out when in previous years it may have been easier to get away with more lackadaisical effort.
It’s that lack of effort, which has been noticeable outside of just rebuilding, which is most concerning.
“We understand that it’s a young team and these are going to be bouts that they do go through,” Mosley said. “In an 82-game season, there’s going to be the ups and downs and the ebbs and flows of the season. You wish you could say they are going to play extremely that way for 82 games. There are going to be times where [the] rhythm is going to be off. But we’ve got to continue to grow in our focus and our energy level on a consistent basis.”
The margins are thin for Magic. Defensive rebounding and second-chance points are ones they can’t afford to lose.
They’re learning how to not allow one mistake — a missed rotation, turnover or missed shot — to build on one another and diminish their effort as the game goes on.
And being vocal with one another to correct mistakes immediately, both of which are important lessons for a young team.
“There are times where we think short picture,” Cole Anthony said. “Maybe someone will commit a turnover, miss a shot and we’ll put our heads down and start sulking. You got to realize it’s a long game. You can have a crappy first half and turn up the second half. You can win a game in the second half. You can lose a game in the first half. We’ve got to stay even-keeled and keep our effort consistent.”
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Khobi Price at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @khobi_price.