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Preseason notebook: Defense showing signs, Nicholson plays strong, and bad habits return

In this notebook, Zach examines some of the major points from the Magic's first preseason game.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Defense shows small signs of improvement

Coming into their first preseason game of the season, the constant message was the Orlando Magic planned to be a much improved defensive team. With new coach Scott Skiles in charge, the team had the coach in place to not only help the team improve on that end, but also be held accountable.

Opening up the preseason against the division foe Charlotte Hornets, the Magic showed some signs of improvement on that end of the floor. While the final line might not do it justice, the Magic did some good things on the defensive end throughout the game.

The Magic's activity level was up, with the team getting after the Hornets defensively and pressuring them in many pick-and-roll situations. The team's starting backcourt of Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo also showed signs of improvement, fighting through screens smoothly, something they continually struggled with last season. The hosts also allowed their defense to dictate their pace early on, getting big stops and pushing the pace to get some easy looks in transition.

While the improvements are welcoming signs, there were a lot of things that the team did poorly as well.

Charlotte was continually able to exploit the Magic's slow rotation, swinging the ball around the court at will, finding open shooters in every spot imaginable. The Magic also had trouble sealing off the weakside, giving up open cutting lanes and easy looks for a Hornets offense that struggled last season. Charlotte was also able to exploit the Magic's lack of rim protection, getting to the rim and finishing whenever they wanted.

Following the game, Coach Skiles said he wasn't very happy with the way his team defended. "We had a lot of blown assignments," he said. "We had four, five minutes in one stretch of three, four minutes in another stretch where we were fairly sharp, but the rest of the time we weren't. We've got a long way to go."

Oladipo, the man who played the best of all the starters, said he thought the team's defense was just "okay."

There's some things we still need to work on, get better at," he said. "Still some things, little bitty things that we can correct. Overall we just have to do a better job of making people feel uncomfortable out there. Just going out there and playing hard overall, especially the starters. We have to do a better job of setting the tone."

The work the team has been putting in is showing in certain areas of the game, but they still have a long way to go to get to the level that they hope to reach soon. Coach Skiles is going to continue to push the team, and with the right amount of work and commitment on the defensive end, the Magic should see the defense turn the corner even more.

Nicholson shines off the bench

After playing very sparingly last season, Andrew Nicholson came out with a dominant offensive performance despite the loss. Nicholson led all scorers, finishing the night with 23 points, along with eight rebounds and two assists. The performance was refreshing, and one that saw Nicholson show the flashes of brilliance he did in his rookie season.

The fourth-year big man continually went into the post, working defenders with his silky footwork and up-and-under moves. Nicholson also showed off his range, stepping out beyond the three-point line and knocking down two of his three attempts.

Coach Skiles was pleased with Nicholson's performance following the game. "Thought he played well," he said. "He did a nice job. [A] couple of times he may have held it a little bit too much, but he had it going and the guys were looking for him. He's very good down there [in the post]. He's got nice touch, he's got good feel, knows what shot to shoot. As long as he can stay in the game defensively, it's an option for us to go down there and get points."

The performance was certainly a blast from the past from Nicholson, who loitered around the three-point line last season instead of working inside. He was able to find the rhythm that he needed and use the strongest part of his game to his advantage, while also showing a willingness to still step out and take the shot from deep when the situation called for it.

While it's just a preseason game, Nicholson's performance shines a ray of light into his future with the team. After being buried on the bench last season, Nicholson, arguably the Magic's best low-post scoring option, could end up playing an important role for the team moving forward should his strong play continue.

Kicking old habits

One thing that has doomed the Magic the last few years has been their inability to fix the things they were consistently doing wrong. Saturday night was no different, and Coach Skiles was not happy about it.

"At some point we have to get past that 'everything is okay' [mentality]," he said. "We didn't start the second half with any sort of energy whatsoever. They did, that's not okay if you want to win. That's not okay. We need to understand that."

The team will see some improvement as they continue to work together and play in games, but their continued bad habits must go. Countless times, especially last season, the Magic didn't play with any energy whatsoever in the second half, knocking them out of games they has chances to win.

Tobias Harris sounded off, saying, "I think that you have to know that you can't make a mistake over and over again and there [be] no consequence for it. We didn't start the third quarter well and Coach took us out and basically told us if you're not going to play and you're not going to have the energy right away that you're not going to help our team."

Oladipo shared some of the same feelings Harris did, including the fact the team's energy wasn't acceptable. "We've got to come out with some energy and some juice," he said. "They made adjustments in the second half and they cam out with the mentality that they were going to get after it. We've got to match that energy they brought and find a way to slow them down."

This isn't going to be the same Magic team from the last few seasons if Skiles has anything to say about it. The team is going to find a way to play with the same energy from start to finish, and find ways to win games. Much like their defense it might take some time, but with the right amount of work, the Magic could be building something special.

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