The Magic (6-8) have been fighting to outrace expectations early in 2018-19 with impressive victories over Miami, Boston, and San Antonio, while simultaneously coupling them with defeats at the hands of Sacramento and Washington, among others.
However, if the Magic hope to continue developing an identity outside of the grasp of the national audience, they’ll have to wait. The Magic face an uncompromising schedule beginning with Jimmy Butler and LeBron James, the Knicks, Kawhi and the Raptors at home, before heading out on the road to face the Nuggets, Lakers, Blazers and Warriors.
Magic head coach Steve Clifford has made it clear on several occasions that there are no moral victories in the NBA, and yet the Magic will have to manage their expectations as they seek to prove their mettle against some of the toughest opponents in the NBA. Except for the New York Knicks, each of the Magic’s next eight match-ups feature opponents with seven wins or more.
But the spotlight may burn brightest this week, as the Magic join the NBA in getting a first-look at 76ers’ freshly acquired superstar, Jimmy Butler, the recent acquisition from the Minnesota Timberwolves. After barely a season in Minnesota (59 games 2017-18, 10 in ‘18-19), the Wolves front office had finally had enough of their soon-to-be free agent after releasing the rights to Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the Lauri Markkanen in exchange for him one year prior.
The Magic may fare better against their Eastern Conference counterpart than many may think. The Magic fell mercilessly short on October 20th, 116-115, following Terrence Ross’ miracle half-court heave to tie things up. It took a career-night from JJ Redick to steal the victory from the Magic in Philadelphia that night. Markelle Fultz struggled mightily in the starting lineup. His pairing with Butler will merit watching on Wednesday.
On playing the two together, Sixers head coach Brett Brown said,” “Somewhere in that pyramid of layers, I’ve got to figure it out.”
“He’s a talented young player,” Butler said of Fultz. “From what I can tell, a lot of problems are mental. In this league, 90 percent of it is mental. If you think you can do something, you can. I know how hard he works because I’m in L.A., I know how hard he works and trains.”
All joking aside, the Magic will face a tall task both on and off the court this week as they face Butler, James and the national spotlight.
“I know that this city thrives on and loves guys that want to compete and win,” Butler said. “If you haven’t been able to tell by now, I think I’m that guy.”
While the Lakers struggled to an 0-3 start following the melee with Houston, they’ve since righted the ship with the addition of Tyson Chandler, and have won five of their last six games.
“I haven’t changed anything outwardly, but you know me,” James told Yahoo Sports. “You know how I am. I almost cracked [last week]. I had to sit back and remind myself, ‘[Expletive], you knew what you were getting yourself into.’”
The Magic are forming an identity, and while hoping for even a single victory in the next eight tries may appear a pipe dream, the numbers are there for all to see. The Magic have improved to fifth in turnovers (13.6), tenth in creating them (15.4), limit live ball turnovers (third), they don’t foul (third, 20), they block shots (sixth), and maybe most importantly, they move the ball with aplomb (third), have an elite assist-turnover ratio (fourth), and they restrict ball movement on the opposing end (tenth).
The Magic will need to make more shots (23rd in EFG), and that starts in the paint, where they sit at 27th in the NBA with just 41 points per game. The discipline is there, now the aggressiveness needs to follow suit.
The Magic were always facing long odds to contend in the Eastern Conference, and still loom as a dark horse candidate for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference. Per popular sports betting site, “Top Bet,” the Magic came in as an unlikely possibility, but with the continual development of Mo Bamba and the solid and steady play of D.J. Augustin, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and the resurgent Terrence Ross, the Magic can continue their upward trajectory.
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