Since taking over as Orlando Magic coach prior to the 2012/13 season, Jacque Vaughn has preached the importance of adhering to a process: playing ball the right way and continuing to work hard will eventually yield results. The Magic's stunning, come-from-behind victories against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers, the league's two best teams, over the weekend came in part as a result of his team's adherence to that principle. Orlando won't contend for a playoff spot in the 2013/14 season, and possibly not in the season after that, but by creating a culture devoted to consistency and hard work, Vaughn and his staff have laid a solid foundation on which Orlando can continue to build.
"Guys have been really intent on coming to work and trying to get better," Vaughn said Sunday after his club erased a 17-point, second-half deficit against the Pacers, who own the league's top defense. "Staying after practice, being in tune in practice, and just overall puling for each other every single day. There's no secret to it. That's what it boils down to. You just have to be committed to it."
Orlando's play caught the eye of at least one of its weekend opponents.
"This is the most dangerous type of team, teams that are just going out there and playing where you just put a group of young guys who are trying to make a name for themselves and trying to come into their own," Pacers All-Star swingman Paul George said. "They also have veteran guys who are playoff-battled and playoff-tested. When you put that together, you are going to get a team that is going to come out and compete at its hardest."
The perception around the NBA is that Orlando is trying to lose games--or, if not trying to lose, then at least not trying its hardest to win. Don't tell the men in the Magic's locker room about that idea, though.
"Oh, no. We wanna win," Magic big man Glen Davis said, when asked if Orlando is rebuilding. "You got guys like Arron [Afflalo] and Jameer [Nelson] and Max [Jason Maxiell] that've been playing for a while now... time doesn't wait. We wanna at least make a mark or do something to help this organization win."
Two one-point victories, at home, against championship-contending teams less than a week before the All-Star Break do not necessarily constitute a success: one must acknowledge that Orlando could have easily lost both games over the weekend, given that each came down to the final possession. Similarly, one must also acknowledge that the Magic battled back from 17-point deficits on both occasions rather than folding, and that they did so on the strength of their young core.
Vaughn doesn't know what this recent stretch of good play will "yield" in the long run, but he's certainly pleased with the progression he's seen from his charges. "The fact that our guys are getting better, they're playing with confidence, they're comfortable with each other, that's okay," he said.
"When you build trust, things like this happen," Davis said. "You win games. I think that's one of the most important things: going out there, building trust, and playing hard."
Nelson, a co-captain along with Davis in Vaughn's first season as coach, offered a similar sentiment. "When you play hard, you give yourself a chance, and you never know what can happen," Nelson said. Notably, Vaughn has done away with team captaincy in his second season at Orlando's helm, instead preaching the importance of shared leadership and responsibility.
If establishing a baseline of solid home play is a key step in the rebuilding process, it follows that the next would be playing more consistently on the road. Even the league's elite teams falter away from home from time to time--just ask the Thunder and Pacers--but Orlando certainly must improve on the road if it is to contend for a playoff spot within the next two seasons. At 3-23, Orlando has the league's worst road record, and its statistics do not measure up outside of Amway Center. Indiana coach Frank Vogel said as much in his pre-game meeting with the media.
So how can the Magic improve on the road? Davis has the answer.
"I think the focus level has to be up tremendously," Davis said. "I think we have to lock in on the defensive side and let everything else take care of itself."
The Magic will test themselves on the road soon enough: after one home game and then the All-Star Break, Orlando plays six of its next seven games away from Amway Center.