Consistency has very clearly been the buzz word for the Magic all season.
Nobody has seen this team play at its absolute best for two games in a row, much less for long stretches of games or even individual quarters. This is the team that looked ready to knock the doors off the Bobcats and storm to an easy win in one moment, and then became selfish and lackadaisical in giving up that lead and losing. Remember, the Magic beat the Heat earlier this season and got blown out at New Orleans.
It is hard to figure out this team. Really hard.
On most nights, you know what you will get from Dwight Howard. With little deviation, Howard will get his numbers -- 20.7 points per game and 15.7 rebounds per game. It is the other players that are the mystery.
"We're very tough when [Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson] are both being aggressive, not just as scorers but trying to make plays," Howard said. "That's one thing we're telling the guys all season is we need Hedo, [Jameer], J-Rich to be aggressive and make plays for us."
That has obviously not always happened. Therein lies the problem.
The Magic need strong, energetic, aggressive performances from its key ball handlers. When Nelson and Turkoglu score, the Magic tend to win. The Magic are 14-0 in games where Turkoglu scores 14 or more points. The team is 3-8 when Turkoglu scores fewer than 10 points. The Magic are 4-4 when Nelson scores 15 or more points, but are 6-2 when Nelson has at least seven assists.
Trying to get Turkoglu and Nelson playing assertively is undoubtedly key for the Magic's future success. No two players on the team handle the ball more and dictate the pace of play. When Turkoglu and Nelson are not attacking and distributing, the Magic offense can get stagnant, resulting in lots of stand-still post ups for Dwight Howard and isolation plays.
Those are not the Magic's best plays.
And so Nelson and Turkoglu have tried to find that balance. That has become especially important for Nelson, who has shown a lot of improvement in his consistency since returning from concussion symptoms a few weeks ago.
"My thing is I have to be in attack mode and just no matter what's going on pick and choose when I shoot the ball," Nelson said. "When I'm aggressive, I make the right play. When I'm passive, I'm not as good.
"I can (play like he did against Oklahoma City every night). As of lately, I've been playing with a lot more energy. Just focusing on playing hard, and nothing else. Not worried about missing or making shots, taking shots, not worried about how many shots I get. At the end of the day, it's about winning the game. For us to win, i need to play with energy."
You can see some of the larger themes and issues this team is dealing with all wrapped up in Nelson's individual play.
Nelson has played better of late. Since the few weeks off he got because of the concussion, Nelson is averaging 11.3 points per game and 5.9 assists per game. Overall on the season, Nelson is 9.5 points per game and 5.5 assists per game. As Evan Dunlap of Orlando Pinstriped Post pointed out before the game against Toronto on Monday, Nelson has improved greatly from his initial struggles this season:
"Nelson's done more than score more effectively, however: he's averaging 6.1 assists to just 1.7 turnovers during that span. His Pure Point Rating--which weighs a turnover as more harmful than an assist is helpful, and adjusts for minutes played--of 7.6 would trail only José Calderón, Steve Nash, and Chris Paul if he maintained it through the entire season, according to DraftExpress' stats page.
"John Hollinger's BAD rating attributed much of Orlando's underwhelming performance to its lack of productivity at the point. Perhaps upgrading that position is less of a concern now that Nelson appears to have gotten himself back on track."
Nelson has increased the level of his play in February, but of course, needs to do just a bit more. Even if it has mitigated some of the issues the team has had at point guard.
This lesson can go to all of Orlando's ball-handlers too. This season has also seen a vast improvement in the play from Chris Duhon, albeit pretty modest.
Duhon is shooting 43.1 percent from the floor and 6.9 points per 36 minutes. Those are increases over his plainly awful statistics last season (38.0 percent shooting, 5.8 points per 36 minutes). His PER is a more respectable 8.6, up from 5.6 last year. Duhon is not where the team wants him to be, but he is not the complete liability he was last year.
Like the other players who handle the ball, Duhon's biggest problems seem to come when he is not being aggressive.
"Chris' problem basically come, and i think he knows this, is when he gets a little bit tentative, when he is not on the attack," Stan Van Gundy said. "When he stays on the attack, he is pretty good. When he gets tentative with the ball, he makes some mistakes."
This is the basic problem with all of Orlando's main ball handlers. The aggression and confidence to run the team and attack to create opportunities is not always present. When it is, the Magic are an extremely dangerous team. But when they are passive, this team is rather pedestrian.
If there is any position that needs more consistency and aggression coming from it, it is with the point guards and ball handlers. If Orlando is going to turn things around, the team needs to see confidence and aggression coming from this position.