The Orlando Magic have surged out in front of their Southeast rivals with a three-game winning streak against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the New York Knicks. Winners of seven of their previous nine contests, the Magic rest at 9-8 with early-season victories over quite the slate of opponents in Miami, Boston, San Antonio, among others. In fact, the Magic have only surrendered one game to an opponent with a mark under .500 (5-11 Wizards).
Early impressions tab the Orlando Magic as the real deal in an Eastern Conference desperate for dark horse candidates in what has been an underwhelming season of standout performances. The Bucks can’t seem to win two games in a row after beginning the season 7-0 (11-4), the Celtics have sputtered (9-7), the 76ers nearly lost twice to these same Magic (11-7), and the once infallible Raptors have lost three of their last four games!
But the Magic have not yet earned the benefit of the doubt. After failing to make the playoffs for six consecutive seasons, prognosticators, talking heads, and even Las Vegas are hesitant to fully embrace the Magic’s break out season. Las Vegas sports betting site, Top Bet, still has Orlando ranked below the Hornets, Heat and rapidly imploding 5-11 Wizards.
(Might want to take that bet while it’s still available!)
Regardless, the Magic have begun defying the odds and playing arguably the most consistent basketball of anyone outside of the Indiana Pacers.
Head Coach Steve Clifford has completely shifted the culture in Orlando. He’s put the onus on the players, the media, even the fans. The time for kids gloves is over. The Orlando Magic have fully bought into Clifford’s message, and they’re beginning to expect to win.
“I WANT US AS A TEAM TO GROW TO THE PLACE WHERE WE EXPECT TO BEAT THE BEST TEAMS IN THIS LEAGUE, BECAUSE WE WILL BE ONE OF THE BEST TEAMS IN THIS LEAGUE WHEN WE PUT IT TOGETHER. TONIGHT IS AN EXAMPLE OF WHAT CAN TAKE PLACE THIS ENTIRE SEASON.” – JONATHAN ISAAC
With Clifford’s help, the Magic have strictly followed fundamentals and improved their discipline in several areas. The Magic are fifth in turnovers (13.7), second in assists per field goal made (.64), 12th in points allowed per game, and eighth and ninth in opponent transition points and assists, respectively.
Terrence Ross has given the Magic early favor as a sixth man of the year candidate, and Nikola Vucevic just secured Player of the Week honors in the Eastern Conference.
But there’s no time to celebrate small victories, as the Toronto Raptors will be another important test for the Orlando Magic. With early season victories over the Celtics and 76ers, the defeat of the East-leading Raptors would certainly put the conference on notice.
While losers of three of four against the Pelicans, Pistons and Celtics, the Raptors soundly stepped on the Chicago Bulls on Sunday night, winning by a cool 39 points, 122-83.
Led by early season MVP candidate Kyle Lowry, and 2016-17 candidate Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors boast both All-Star talent at the top as well as endless depth throughout the roster.
The Raptors have depth to spare in the backcourt with Lowry, Danny Green, Fred Van Fleet, Delon Wright, and Malachi Richardson. Their wings extend far and wide with Leonard, Normal Powell, CJ Miles and OG Anunoby. And their frontcourt is well conditioned to dominate its slighter foes in Orlando with the powerful Pascal Siakam, familiar Serge Ibaka, and monstrous Jonas Valunciunas.
Led by newly appointed head coach Nick Nurse, the Raptors are third in offensive rating (114.2), and sixth in defensive (106). Simply put, there isn’t much the Raptors don’t do well.
Top five in scoring, points in the paint and in transition, the Raptors do struggle from beyond the three-point line (23rd). They also allow a perplexing 15.4 points per game in transition. They struggle to minimize ball movement (20th) but they make up for it by creating live-ball turnovers and turning them into fast points (8th).
The Raptors aren’t the only team the Magic will seek to prove their mettle against on this difficult road trip. The Raptors end the Magic’s four-game homestand and begin its six-game road trip against the likes of the Nuggets, Lakers, Warriors, Blazers, Suns and Heat.
The Magic have been impressive in their first month of 2018-19 basketball, but the next two weeks will tell us a great deal about just how high this Magic team can truly climb.
For more on this exciting upcoming matchup, download my interview with Locked on Raptors’ host, Sean Woodley on the “Do You Believe in Magic Podcast” as we break down the Raptors and offer our predictions for this upcoming test.