Coming off of two flat-footed performances against the Indiana Pacers (113-100), that wasn’t as close as it seemed, and the outright drumming against the Dallas Mavericks 101-76, the Magic had lost seven of ten and were dangerously close to spiraling out of control once more.
At 12-15, two back-to-back losses “at home” would have been cause for alarm. But in this instance the Magic removed themselves to the comforts of the Mexican altitude and rattled off consecutive victories against the reinvigorated Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz.
The 97-91 victory against the hapless 6-22 Bulls was far from impressive, but the defensive performance against the Jazz was downright splendid. The Magic held the Jazz to an arresting 31.5 percent shooting in a 91-86 victory, even while offering the Jazz 22 extra opportunities in the form of 11 first-quarter turnovers. The Jazz couldn’t capitalize as the Magic defended with aplomb utilizing 17 steals and blocks to create three-point opportunities on the other end (46 percent).
The Magic finally have a key on their best rotations. With all the pieces finally back to health, Clifford has a full slate of tools to tinker with, and handled them this week with precision.
With Simmons’ shelved against Chicago due to an ankle sprain, Clifford again attempted to force Jonathan Isaac into the starting lineup, something that has continually backfired as that unit boasts a net-negative -4.8 per 100 possessions.
But he would quickly revert on the mistake inserting Ross into the lineup, where the squad excels with a +17.8 mark in the 90 minutes played, one of the more impressive marks in the NBA.
Even more interesting has been Clifford’s experimentation with the group’s substitutions:
Grant – Ross – Simmons – Isaac – Vucevic +43 in just 21 minutes
Grant – Ross – Isaac – Gordon – Bamba +4.8 in 112 minutes
These lineups have been the difference between holding the course and building upon it, and give strong indication as how to evenly place the talent the Magic’s core have with the requisite balance needed to carry their effectiveness.
By contrast, one of the Magic’s most prevalently used bench lineups has been an early disaster:
Grant – Ross – Simmons – Isaac – Bamba -41 in 59 minutes
One of the more commonly used benches, this unit time and time again fails to live up to expectation. Spaced with five heady defenders, the unit should be able to defend the charges levied by opposing offensive teams, but more often that not the group beats itself by failing to convert on the offensive end (-14 percent shooting).
Numbers and pieces aside, the Magic have returned to their grit, their style headed by Steve Clifford. The Magic’s defense is making the leap, down to 13th after keeping the Bulls and Jazz to but 91 and 86 points, respectively.
Nikola Vucevic, the Magic’s sure-fire All-Star, was the crux of their success once more, with contributions in the clutch against Wendell Carter and the Bulls when the Magic needed it most finishing with 26 and 11 rebounds. Then he did the unthinkable, negating Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert to just six points and 13 rebounds while collective 15 and 19 of his own.
“I’m aware I’m not going to be like some of the shot-blockers in this league because I don’t have those physical capabilities, but with my size, length, wingspan & my IQ for the game I can read some situations & do a better job.” – Vucevic told John Denton
“I’ve been getting a lot of (expletive) about it through much of my career, but over the years I’ve made improvement on that end and I’ve been able to play smarter.”
The Orlando Magic (14-15) are back to playoff contention with an upcoming home game against the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs had won four straight before falling to the aforementioned Bulls, further cementing the quality of the victory the Magic won on Thursday night in Mexico City.
Look for the Magic’s defense to continue its improvement the Spurs and their top ten offense. The Spurs give up points on the defensive end (25th), but the Magic will have to stymie the group and play their game. Falling into the hands of the blistering half-court offense the Spurs will throw at them could condemn the Magic. The Magic will have to hold the fort in the paint where the Spurs are 26th, and limit transition opportunities (30th), and attack the Spurs on that end (14th, and 17th).
The Magic have already taken one of the two games against San Antonio on November 4th in San Antonio, 117-110. Should the Magic prevail, it will be the first sweep of the Spurs since the 2008-9 season, and just the second sweep in franchise history. It will also be the first time the Magic have held a .500 record at this point in the season since 2015.