Nikola Vucevic dumbfounded by collapses

The Orlando Magic held its own against the best team in the East, the Atlanta Hawks. Well, the Magic actually dominated the Hawks, to be accurate. But it did so for only the first 42 minutes of the game, eventually collapsing to lose 95-83. The Hawks closed the game on a torrid assault, forcing Orlando into a corner and checkmating it with the same intangibles that had earned Orlando the lead: intense and pestering defensive efforts.

But that is what tough teams like the Hawks do: turn it on, turn up the pressure, and quickly cook the Magic like a raw egg. It was almost as though the entire game it was just a matter of that happening, and it did.

Orlando started out the game very strong, leading 13-2 and forcing an Atlanta timeout as the Amway’s faithful got unusually loud during what has been a somber rebuilding effort. There was less manufactured sound coming from the speakers, and actual fans were cheering on a Magic team desperately in need of a victory, even if it were just a moral one.

And unfortunately for Nikola Vucevic, that is all it was. Vucevic commented, “(We) try to make quick decisions and do what we did for 42 of the minutes played, and whatever is working we just have to keep on doing it.” And that may be the problem, Nik and his teammates weren’t sure what was working, just that something was.

What was working was the defense of the Magic, and Atlanta’s 2015 All-Star Kyle Korver and coach Mike Budenholzer heavily praised Orlando’s defense. Magic coach James Borrego said in practice the team works extensively on getting hands on the ball, even if it does not ultimately result in a steal. That’s exactly what happened. The long arms of Elfrid Payton and his other backcourt henchman Victor Oladipo put strain on entry passes, forced unusual Hawks turnovers and looked like the team that was rated No. 7 in defensive rating—not its opponent.

But, there is a reason the Hawks are at the top and the Magic nearly at the bottom, and those reasons unravelled during the fourth quarter. Vucevic said the Magic played “in a higher gear” the first three quarters, citing ball pressure and taking away Atlanta’s easy looks. He resigned himself to the fact that he and his teammates “played a great game, but unfortunately lost.”

And that happens for primarily one main reason: a lack of experience. One can imagine the likes of a Kevin Garnett forcing his teammates to play defense or die (am I kidding, I’m not sure myself). The Magic are a team with no true leadership.

The Magic are essentially led by a rookie in Elfrid Payton and a second-year guard in Victor Oladipo; despite having older (mediocre) players on the roster like Channing Frye, Luke Ridnour and Willie Green.

None of these players commands the respect nor attention to help the Magic’s young players overcome their fourth quarter struggles. It shows not only in the fact that none of those four player start, but also in the fact you never see the quartet pulling the younger players aside to talk to them. That is what veterans are supposed to do.

Getting a defensive culture started is easy, and Nikola knows it begins first with effort. His teammates do too. What they seem to fail to realize is that effort must be accompanied by a true focus, and that losing the focus for even half a quarter can result in a loss. The Hawks trailed by double digits most of the game, and Kyle Korver said the Hawks just can’t “flip a switch” when it comes to games, because that will catch up to them in the postseason.

Maybe that is a genuine concern for Korver and the Hawks, who had lost three straight going into Wednesday’s (Mar 25) contest. The lack of focus also showed in the Hawks runs, which went as follows: 1st quarter, 10-5 run; 2nd quarter, 14-2 run; third, an 8-3 run; and lastly, the 24-3 run that sealed this one up for the Hawks. Add that up, and it reveals this: the Magic lost the game entirely at the end of quarters, when inexperienced teams seem to lose their focus the most.

It is troubling that Vucevic could not pinpoint what led to the collapse. He knew it happened, but he did not understand why. And that is exponentially compounded by the fact his teammates likely have no idea either—all of them are going to have to rely on coach James Borrego to teach them on film what they did that needs to be fixed.

Remember, Borrego came from being a film editor for Gregg Popovich so he can more than break down a game tape to find critical sequences. Perhaps enlightening his players with a marker and a dry erase board will erase the errors. Maybe the Magic will learn.

But there is one thing that is abundantly clear from this game: Orlando needs a GOOD veteran to start to show them the way.

There isn’t one on the roster at all, and GM Rob Hennigan needs to dip into his rainy day jar to snatch up some help on the free agent market, because it can’t be done through the draft. There’s no longer a need for a lot of prospects, because the main pieces are already in Orlando to at least be a playoff team. But it won’t happen if Vucevic and his teammates simply scratch their heads, shrug their shoulders and move onto the next one. That isn;t how growth occurs.

Granted, this was the Hawks, the toughest team in the Eastern Conference, but Orlando led the game due to its defense, then proceeded to give it up to a better team with an even tougher defensive scheme. There’s a lesson in all of it, but Vucevic and his teammates need to start to address why the focus is being lost at the end of quarters, perhaps the most critical juncture with regards to winning in the NBA.

The first quarter would have been a 10-2 run if not for a Willie Green triple from the corner at the horn. It all spells a very ugly picture, and sometimes that just has to be the case. Expectations were not high for the Magic coming into this season, aside from fans of the team and fans of its individual players. But in time, with some tutelage and leadership, this team could be a playoff contending team.

While an actual title has eluded the Magic for the entire tenure of its 26-year existence, the playoffs shouldn’t be out of reach, nor the struggles some kind of grand enigma. All of this can be remedied, but the fact there is a consistent theme in it all is what led to Jacque Vaughn’s firing, and the same thing that will make this just an internship for James Borrego.