ORLANDO - A fairly good way to measure whether a young team is making progress is by examining how many times they are within striking distance of their opponents in the final minutes of games.
For the Orlando Magic, who have the seventh youngest roster in the NBA with an average age of 24.7 years old, the data is promising.
Although behind far more often than they are ahead in crunch time, the Magic have frequently been within five points of their opponent in the last three minutes of the fourth quarter. In 17 games, in fact, the game has either been tied or Orlando has been down by no more than five in that window of time.
As you probably would assume for a 9-39 team, wins have been hard to come by, however. The Magic are 4-13 in those games. A very interesting stat to note, though, is that in those situations, Orlando ranks No. 1 in the league in free throw attempts, averaging 2.2 of them. Protecting the rim is also something they’ve excelled at doing in that timeframe when the score is that close, averaging a league-tying best 0.4 blocks.
Somewhat surprising considering in most of games lately their defense has been ahead of their offense, it’s been the reverse in those final three minutes when the outcome hangs in the balance. The Magic’s offensive rating when the game is either tied or they are down by no more than five in the last three minutes is 107.7, 10th best in the NBA. Their defensive rating, on the other hand, is 116.5, ranked 22nd.
A review of NBA history will remind us that one of the most difficult things for young teams to do is stay poised when the pressure mounts. It all starts with not getting blown out, though, which the Magic have generally avoided, especially this month. In Boston on Jan. 2, for instance, Orlando led by 12 with about three minutes left before the Celtics stormed back to force overtime. The next night in Chicago, the Magic and Bulls were neck-and-neck down the stretch. Against Philadelphia and the L.A. Lakers last week, the Magic led by 10 late in the first half of both games. In their victories over Charlotte and Chicago, they took full control in each of those fourth quarters.
“Our guys did a really good job at halftime talking, communicating what they need to do coming out of the break,” Magic Head Coach Jamahl Mosley said of Sunday’s win over the Bulls. “Now they went on a little run, and that was understood because basketball is a game of runs. But I was so happy for these guys to understand that they stood their ground – we made some runs, they made some runs – but it was just great to see the maturity level there as they grew.”
One player who has thrived in fourth quarters lately is rookie Jalen Suggs, who in January is averaging a team-best 5.8 points in those last 12 minutes on 70.6 percent shooting from the floor. The 6-foot-5 combo guard scored 11 of his 15 points in the final frame in the win over Chicago.
“We showed great composure,” Suggs said. “We learned from past experiences…Wendell (Carter Jr.) spoke up (at halftime) and said we know what we got to do. We don’t need a pep talk, we don’t need to talk about anything, we are on our coverages. We know we need to come out in the third quarter, set the tone, and be the aggressors. That set it for everybody…Great overall night for everybody. We showed fight, we showed heart, we showed resilience. This is a big one to build on, especially at home.”
Another important aspect of Sunday’s victory was the stellar play the Magic got from their bench, who outscored the Bulls’ reserves by 41. Moe Wagner scored 23 points, his second 20-plus-point performance this season, and Chuma Okeke and Ignas Brazdeikis each finished with 11.
For the Magic to give themselves a chance to win, they need the reserves to provide a spark, which they’ve done in nearly all of Orlando’s victories this season. Wagner has stepped up his play lately, averaging 11.1 points on 59 percent overall shooting over his last 11 games.
“I think it’s very easy to play with Moe, and I think that’s why just a lot of times that’s what (shows) on the court,” his younger brother Franz Wagner said. “He’s really good at reading defenses, even as a big guy. He moves very well without the ball. I think we both grew up playing that way, and that shows on the court and it kind of comes out.”