The mantra around the Orlando Magic organization heading into the 2019-20 season was “run it back”. The saying was everywhere, one couldn’t escape it. With the entirety of Orlando’s nine-man playoff rotation from last season returning this year, plus the additions of Mohamed Bamba (missed the playoffs due to injury), Markelle Fultz, and Al-Farouq Aminu, the Magic were banking on continuity being a factor that helped them get off to a fast start in ‘19.
For a variety of reasons (disjointed rotations due to a multitude of injuries, cold shooting, inconsistent play), the Magic have failed to use their continuity to get out in front (in the Eastern Conference standings) of some organizations who have had to work-in fresh faces (due to the significant player-turnover that occurred around the league last summer).
To their credit, Orlando has taken care of business against some of the lesser teams in the league. In fact, the Magic have compiled a 12-2 record through 31 games against teams that currently sit outside of the top eight seeds in their respective conferences.
But it’s their ability to get quality wins against some of the better teams in the NBA that has eluded them so far in 2019-20. Orlando has garnered two “quality” wins against an opponent with a winning record this season. Interestingly enough, both of those victories have come at the expense of the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Magic actually match-up relatively well against the talented Sixers, who have dropped their last four contests in Orlando (dating back to last season) against the home team. Friday night’s win over the Sixers was especially important for the Magic because Philadelphia’s starting lineup was at full-strength. Orlando beat Philadelphia in November, but the Sixers were playing without Joel Embiid then.
“I think that the physicality that Orlando played with (was a problem),” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said after the game. “I give them credit, I don’t think we responded to it well at all. Our defense was good enough to win, but I think that we got shoved around.”
“So (obviously) that was a good win. Hard fought, physical game,” Orlando head coach Steve Clifford said during his post-game conference Friday night. “(We did) better on the glass, much better defense. We did a good job battling in the post against all their guys. They’re so big, there are lineups out there that are difficult. Tobias (Harris), it happens every night, he gets smaller guys on him and takes advantage of them. But I thought our guys did a solid job in the post (defending).”
“I think we play to the level (sometimes) of our opponent: whether it be a terrible team, a mediocre team, or the best team in the NBA,” former Magic forward Tobias Harris said of his team’s performance Friday night against the Magic. Harris was eluding to Philadelphia’s decisive victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas Day, and comparing it to how his team played against the Magic in their next contest. “I think it is something we have to figure out as a unit, of how we can play at a high level each and every night. Tonight we didn’t do that, and you have to give them (the Magic) credit. They executed all night.”
Orlando is one of the few teams in the league that possesses the requisite size to match-up defensively with Philadelphia, who sports the tallest starting lineup in the NBA (Harris: 6-9, Ben Simmons: 6-10, Al Horford: 6-10, Embiid: 7-0). That size came into serious question midway through the third quarter Friday when Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who had been the primary defender on Simmons for the majority of the night, was charged with his fourth personal foul. Orlando was already playing without Michael Carter-Williams (shoulder), Aminu (knee), and Bamba (ankle), so Gordon heading to the bench required Magic head coach Steve Clifford to get a little creative with his defensive assignments.
To his team’s credit, the Magic outscored the Sixers 17-9 from the moment Gordon left the game through the remainder of the third quarter, creating enough of a cushion to ultimately win the game. That was an absolutely critical stretch in the game that could have easily gone the other way for Orlando.
“We ended up with a funky lineup there,” Clifford said of the way his team closed out the third quarter. “(Terrence) Ross actually ended up on Horford for a couple possessions there. They got good shots but they missed. But again, 17 points against that team in like five and a half minutes is critical.”
“We just had to step-up and play team defense,” Terrence Ross said of his team’s play to close out the third quarter. “Gang rebound (to account for their size), it’s a group effort. And we just had to go out there and help each other.”
I wouldn’t say the mood inside Orlando’s locker room after Friday night’s game was overly celebratory. Players were content with the win, but there was also a sense that guys realized it was just one game. The real test will come if/when the Magic can use wins like these against quality opponents to help springboard the team towards something more.
“It was a good win for us,” Nikola Vucevic said after the game. “Tonight we played the way we need to play every night for us to have a chance, our defense was really good.”
“It says something that we already know,” Evan Fournier told reporters when asked about beating a good team like Philadelphia. “When we play the right way and we have the right focus and intensity, we can beat very good teams. The thing with us is, we have to do it consistently. It felt like Magic basketball tonight, as far as the defense, the approach, the details, and the coverages. That’s what it should be like every night.”
“I mean, we’re a good team,” Gordon said in front of his locker. “We really feel like we can win, we feel like we can compete. And we feel like we can make noise in the East. I’m glad that we came out of here with a win.”
“Coming out with a win” is something that nearly didn’t happen, even after Gordon’s extraordinary dunk off a lob from Fournier put the Magic up by eleven points with just under two minutes remaining in the game. Missed free throws, turnovers, and some three-point prayers that were answered from the Sixers, resulted in Embiid miraculously having a shot to win the game with a field goal attempt at the horn that missed badly (off an Orlando in-bounds turnover with just five seconds remaining in the contest).
“The end wasn’t great, but we can clean that up,” Clifford told reporters. “It’s a good win against a good team.”
It remains to be seen if the Magic can parlay their two wins against the Sixers into something more substantial.
Things won’t be easy Saturday night when Orlando travels to Milwaukee on the second night of a back-to-back to take on the Bucks, owners of the best overall record in the NBA.
Orlando’s next 17 games (through January) will provide the Magic with ten more opportunities to defeat a team with a wining record (one of the most difficult stretches on the schedule, including a five-game West Coast road-trip).
It’s becoming a bit more clear that (in fact) the Magic can beat good teams in the NBA as well as the bad ones, or at least the Philadelphia 76ers.
How often they will be able to accomplish that (defeating teams with a winning record) will go a long way in determining their 2019-20 season outlook, and if a return trip to the NBA playoffs for a second consecutive season is in the cards for this Orlando Magic team.