Coming into action on Wednesday night, the Orlando Magic had put together strong start after strong start, shooting over 51 percent in the opening quarter, to go along with a nearly four point advantage, on average, in the first 12 minutes. Getting off to the strong starts generally allowed the Magic to hang around in the first half, keeping them in games that last season they may have quickly fallen out of.
However, the Magic have struggled in the start of the second half of games. Out of the halftime break, the Magic were shooting nearly 11 percentage points lower, while getting outscored and out played due to low energy levels in seemingly every third quarter to date.
Wednesday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves was different for the Magic, with the team looking sluggish early, and finding their rhythm and a unit that really worked for them as the game wore on.
While finding their rhythm and a unit that was firing on all clynders was arguably the deciding factor for the team, it wasn't easy.
Coach Scott Skiles played 12 of his 13 active players, desperately trying to find some combination of players who would give his team some life. Skiles even even had to go as far as benching his starting center, Nikola Vucevic, because of his poor play and lack of energy on both ends of the floor.
Out of halftime, Skiles rolled with Dewayne Dedmon and Channing Frye in place of Vucevic and Victor Oladipo, who returned after missing the previous week with a concussion. While Dedmon and Frye may not have impacted the game in major statistical ways, Skiles felt as though they gave the team good energy, and a boost on the defensive end. "We changed the lineup to start the second half, and I felt like we got some good energy out of that group," said Skiles. "I thought, even though Channing wasn't on the stats sheet, I thought he picked up our defense."
After Frye and Dedmon came out, Skiles turned to Jason Smith, who was returning after missing four games with a knee injury, and the rarely used Andrew Nicholson. The duo really turned things around for the Magic, helping spark a 15-0 run in the middle portion of the third quarter to help the Magic roar back and take the lead for the first time since early in the contest.
"Jason Smith came in and I thought he was great," said the Magic's head man. "I thought he really kind of turned the momentum of the game, again his line, he was one-for-five, but his rebounding and defense and activity and talking really picked us up."
Skiles was also very pleased with how Nicholson played, despite his shot not falling. "I thoguth he was great too. I felt bad for him, he hasn't played and he was getting his post touches and they were just rimming out, but he has worked hard, he's stayed ready. He was also a big factor; he gave us somewhere to go.
"Sometimes when the games get a little hectic, and you can at least slow it down one possession, even just to throw it in the post and get a shot off where you have a chance to get an offensive rebound or something in a bit of a helter-skelter game, it can be positive for you. He was definitely rebounding the ball well. Couple times he got caught on [Andrew] Wiggins, that kid's a great player and he did a good job on him and so he earned more looks."
While Smith and Nicholson made the difference in the front court, Elfrid Payton put together one of, if not his best game of the season, finishing with a career-high 24 points, to go with seven rebounds, six assists and four steals. Payton helped spearhead the Magic's improved energy level in the second half, forcing Ricky Rubio into mistakes, while converting shots around the rim, something the Magic have consistently struggled with all season. Even though Payton didn't have the best of nights shooting -- he shot 11-of-23 overall -- his shot making ability around the rim was a difference maker for an otherwise flat Magic bunch.
After the game, Tobias Harris said that the team needed a "new energy" in the second half, and that Skiles' lineup changes made a difference. "We just wanted to go out there, whoever was out there, we wanted to play hard than we were playing, play with a little bit more energy and a little bit better focus," said Harris.
Evan Fournier, who once again looked like the Magic's best player for the majority of the night -- despite battling a nasty cold that had him bed ridden just 48 hours prior -- thought the team just played harder in the second half. "We came out flat, with no energy, and no awareness on defense. We picked it up. The bench did a good job. They brought a lot of energy for us and that the way we've got to play."
The teams leading scorer also said he felt as though the team was playing "soft" in the first half, adding that they can never play that way again.
The sluggish start, coupled with the strong third quarter was puzzling for a Magic bunch that have consistently been the exact opposite all season. It was a struggle from the start against the young, athletic Timberwolves squad, but with adjustments, the team found a unit that worked.
As Payton said following the game, the Magic would not have won that game if it were last season.
Wednesday night showed a lot about where the Magic are, and how coach Skiles views his team. No one, no matter their importance or role on the team, is guaranteed consistent minutes. If you're struggling and not playing with high energy and giving the team what they need, you can sit on the end of the bench.
It also showed the importance of always being ready, because you never know when Skiles may have to call your number.