If the Orlando Magic’s first three games of the NBA season were movie scripts, you’d have to squint to see the difference in the plot.
Their three losses to the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics to open the season — by a combined 20 points — had similar arcs on the surface.
The Magic (0-3) competed down to the wire in all three defeats, either tying the game or holding a lead at one point in the fourth quarter, but didn’t pull out the win. It’s the details of how the Magic have lost that made them tough to absorb while also providing glimpses of encouragement.
“The little things matter,” rookie forward Paolo Banchero said after Saturday’s loss to the Celtics, with the Magic traveling to New York to play the Knicks Monday. “Free throws, turnovers, fouls — all those things. You can play your heart out for three games, but if you don’t do the little things you’re not going to come out with the win.”
The Magic put the pieces of the puzzle together from one game to the next but it seems like once they found another piece, another went missing.
Against the Pistons, it was reach-in fouls (23 fouls for 24 Detroit free throws) and poor defensive rebounding (12 offensive rebounds allowed) that undid them. They shored up the reaching and rebounding against the Hawks but kept turning the ball over (19 turnovers for 24 points), giving Atlanta easier scoring opportunities in transition (26 fastbreak points).
In the home opener vs. the Celtics, the Magic outrebounded Boston offensively and defensively and took care of the ball (just 9 turnovers). But a combination of missed defensive rotations, tough-shot-making from Jayson Tatum (40 points on 14-of-21 shooting, 4-of-10 on 3s) and missed offensive chances gave Boston the advantage.
Among the missed opportunities were free throws, with the Magic shooting 65.2% (15 of 23) at the line compared to Boston’s 82.1% (23 of 28). They made 3 of 6 free throws in the fourth, including a pair of Cole Anthony misses with the game tied at 109 that could’ve given the Magic a lead with 5:21 remaining. The Magic didn’t have a lead for the final five minutes.
“We left some points on the board,” coach Jamahl Mosley said. “Those are the levels of concentration we’re going to continue to grow and get better in — we can’t leave those points on the board. The fact we’re getting there — that’s a major plus that we’re not afraid to continue to attack the rim.”
The Magic falling short isn’t just about their late execution. Basketball isn’t played in a vacuum and what happens early can impact a team’s rhythm late.
Their poor transition defense early Saturday — 10 fastbreak points allowed through the game’s opening 7½ minutes — likely helped Boston establish a good offensive rhythm. The Celtics shot 48.3% from the field and 40.4% on 3s.
“We have to understand the early parts of the game impact the later parts of the game,” Mosley said. “Our guys registered that, so maybe an early turnover impacts what happens later. They did a really good job of improving in the area we’ve asked them to.”
The Magic’s film work has helped them not repeat the same mistakes from game to game. They also watch games of other teams to better understand what’s required in late-game situations. The Magic watched the ending of the Milwaukee Bucks’ win over the Philadelphia 76ers from Thursday at a team Friday morning before playing the Hawks.
“Our guys do a great job of communicating back the things they see within the game,” Mosley said. “We’ll watch other close games to help understand what we’d do in scenarios. They understand what it is we’re trying to do — certain execution plays, when to call a timeout, when not to, the plays we can run — these guys are getting a hold of that.”
Each game has been a learning lesson.
“It’s great, as much as it hurts to lose a game,” veteran guard Terrence Ross said. “The learning experience is amazing. We’ve played some really good teams. All in all, it’s going to give us confidence and let us know we can compete with anybody.”
Monday’s game will tip off at 7:30 from Madison Square Garden and can be watched on Bally Sports Florida/Bally Sports+ or listened to on FM 96.9 The Game.
Markelle Fultz (fractured left big toe), Gary Harris (left knee injury recovery), Jonathan Isaac (left knee injury recovery), Jalen Suggs (sprained right ankle) and Moe Wagner (sprained right midfoot) will be sidelined.
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Khobi Price at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @khobi_price.