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Preview: Red-hot Magic welcome conference’s best to town

Orlando’s emerging offense is guiding the way during their recent successful stretch of play

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a full calendar year since the Orlando Magic have had a winning record this deep into the season (were 8-7 on November 18th, 2017).

After Sunday night’s convincing win over the New York Knicks, the Magic now lead the Southeast Division in the Eastern Conference with a 9-8 overall record. All of the four other teams within the division are currently below .500 (Charlotte, Miami, Washington, and Atlanta).

NBA: New York Knicks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After winning 8 of their first 12 games last season, the Magic tanked during a brutal stretch of games that saw them drop 11 of their next 13 games, effectively beginning the end of their season.

Orlando is set to embark on a similar stretch of very difficult games over the next two weeks, beginning tonight at home. The Magic welcome to the Amway Center the Toronto Raptors, a team that currently sits atop the Eastern Conference (and holds the NBA’s best overall record at 13-4).

After tonight’s game, the Magic head west for a challenging five-game road-trip which includes games at Portland (1st in West), at Golden State (4th in West), at Denver (6th in West), and at the Los Angeles Lakers (8th in West).

The Magic have won seven of their last nine games, and are surprisingly scoring the basketball as efficiently and prolifically as any team in the league at the moment. Since their home loss to the Clippers nearly three weeks ago, the Magic are 1st in the NBA in field-goal percentage, 1st in three-point percentage, and second in offensive rating.

The Magic scored 130 points or more in both of their wins last weekend against the Lakers and Knicks, the first time in franchise history the team has reached that mark (130 or more points) in back-to-back contests. Over this nine game stretch, the Magic are averaging as a team just under 28 assists per game, the highest mark in the league over that span. For more numbers detailing just how strong Orlando’s offensive play has been recently, check out Zach Oliver’s recent piece.

NBA: New York Knicks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Nikola Vucevic has been the driving force behind Orlando’s recent surge. The center from Montenegro is making a legitimate case this season to be recognized as an NBA All-Star for the first time in his career.

Vucevic, the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week, has averaged 26.4 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 3.4 assists over his last five games. Vucevic scored 30 or more points in back-to-back contests against the Sixers and Lakers last week. He’s making 45% of his three-point attempts this season.

“We understand that even though it’s early to keep winning and become a winning team, we have to keep doing what we’ve done the past (nine) games,” Vucevic said after the game Sunday. “That’s playing well defensively and playing well together and with a sense of purpose.”

Like I mentioned, things will get a whole lot more challenging for Vucevic and the Magic, starting tonight with the Raptors.

Toronto is a top-10 team in the NBA in both offensive rating (5th) and defensive rating (6th). The Raptors defend the paint well and they force opposing teams to turn the ball over at a high clip due to their activity on the defensive end.

Of course, the Raptors are led by one of the top defensive players in the NBA. Kawhi Leonard. Leonard, who sat out for Toronto’s drubbing of the Chicago Bulls because it was the second night of a back-to-back, is expected to play Tuesday night. Leonard is averaging 24.8 points and 8.4 rebounds in 12 games this season.

According to a morning report from Toronto beat reporter Josh Lewenberg, the Raptors will be without OG Anunoby and CJ Miles tonight against the Magic. Kyle Lowry, who is dealing with a minor ankle injury he sustained Saturday against the Bulls, is a game-time decision.

The Magic and Raptors swapped Serge Ibaka for Terrence Ross (and a pick) back in February of ‘17. Since then, Toronto has won the last four games against Orlando head-to-head.

Check back prior to tonight’s contest for our official Magic/Raptors GameThread.