As we come into the season’s home stretch it’s once again time to take a look at the trends and tendencies to have emerged from recent play. Who’s surging? Who’s sliding? The results have varied the previous two times we checked in, but the vibe around the team at the moment is definitely more positive - despite the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ nature of recent results.
With the introduction out of the way and playoff push in full effect let’s dive in and figure out who’s up and who’s down for the Magic.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the Magic’s recent surge has coincided with vastly improved play from Jonathan Isaac. The team has been desperately hoping to see this type of play from 2017’s sixth-overall pick, along with an indication that he and Aaron Gordon can effectively coexist on the basketball court. This most recent stretch of play has been pleasing on both of those fronts.
Since the calendar flipped to February, Isaac has been a beast. He’s pushed his scoring up to almost 14 points per game on what would easily be career-best figures from the field: 49% on field goals and an almost unfathomable 40% from deep. These numbers haven’t been arrived at conservatively, either; he’s shooting more frequently (particularly from long distance) and ending more possessions (a usage rate north of 18%), evidence of an emerging confidence.
Defensively he’s possibly been even better. Across the last 15 games he has a combined 42 steals and blocks, while in February he accrued an individual defensive rating of 98 points per 100 possessions. His awareness and instincts at times appear otherworldly, with his ability to cover the court and close distance allowing him to comfortably roam from his immediate assignment and shut down other fires before they start.
All of this has combined for a plus-minus of +6.1, indicating just how comfortably the team has been taking care of business while he’s on the court. Isaac isn’t a total game-changer just yet but he’s learning how to make a genuine difference.
Two things stand out about Evan Fournier’s recent stretch of play. Firstly, his outside shooting is starting to normalize after a wretched start to the season. Secondly, he’s doing a better job of distributing the ball. For a player essentially being asked to do two things -- score efficiently and make plays -- this is a really good thing.
Across 15 games since the start of February, Fournier has connected on 39% of his attempts from deep, a significant improvement on his mark of 34% for the season. The good news is that this recent figure is actually closer to his career average, so there’s a chance that he maintains this newfound accuracy moving forward. He’s also been slightly more likely to get to the free throw line during this stretch; it’s tough to understate how important this element of his game is, particularly when the bottom of the net has been harder to find from the field.
Fournier has also demonstrated greater reliability as a secondary -- and, at times, primary -- playmaker for the Magic. February was his best month of the season in terms of distributing the ball, with an average of 4.4 assists per contest, including six games with more than five. He’s always done good work out of the two-man game with Nikola Vucevic, and it’s no surprise that the team’s recent uptick has coincided with improved output from the French shooting guard.
Whether the result of measured analysis or happy circumstance it’s clear that head coach Steve Clifford has been pushing the right buttons of late. He has seemingly figured out the backup point guard position, burying Jerian Grant on the bench and handing the keys to the second unit over to first-year guard Isaiah Briscoe, who has been fantastic (frustratingly, the team might need to go back to the drawing board). Mo Bamba’s injury opened the door for Khem Birch to see more minutes, another factor currently boosting the play of the reserves. To this you can add the restructuring of rotations to ensure both Fournier and Aaron Gordon see some time propping up bench-heavy units. He also persisted with the pairing of Isaac and Gordon, even when the numbers and general NBA punditry (including yours truly) were calling for an overhaul.
Clifford isn’t perfect but he’s demonstrating a relatively deft ability to extract performance from this mismatched Magic roster, something which hasn’t happened in recent history. His next trick may just be squeezing this team into the playoffs.
The Playoff Push
Speaking of which: hell yeah, baby; it’s on! For the first time in a very, very long time the Magic are playing meaningful games after the All-Star break, an incredibly good feeling for long-suffering fans of the franchise. There are certainly no guarantees at this stage, but the team’s recent play has generated plenty of optimism as we close in on the first round. Orlando still have work to do, including late game execution and learning how to close out inferior sides. However, some of the team’s recent wins have definitively proven that if they’re good enough, they’ll be there. For a team sporting the league’s third-longest current playoff drought that’s a welcome change.
It’s a shame to have to list the Magic’s prized rookie here, but it’s been an underwhelming period for Bamba since the previous installment in this series. Prior to being shut down with an injury the big man hadn’t scored in double figures since January 2nd, and he hadn’t been trusted with more than 20 minutes since before Christmas. There was also the concerning-but-not-really-surprising revelation that the team performed better with Birch in the back-up center spot. The hope now will be that Bamba can recover fully from the left tibia stress fracture that ended his season, and that he’ll be back next year ready to get on upward trajectory.
Terrence Ross’ shooting in losses
This is apparent to anyone with even a passing interest in their season, but the Magic rely heavily on Terrence Ross’ scoring production off the bench. When it happens, it is glorious: the basketball equivalent of a cosmic supernova erupting and scorching the braided twine of nets across the country. More often than not, such Human Torch activations result in a W for the good guys. But what happens when the flame fails to ignite?
Well, recent evidence suggests that the answer is ‘very bad things’. In the recent loss to the lottery-bound Cavaliers, Ross converted on only 1 of 12 attempts from the field, including a doughnut from deep. The inexplicable loss to the moribund Knicks produced a 1 of 10 line, with only a single made 3. In fact, you’ve got to go all the way back to mid-January to find an Orlando loss in which Ross shot greater than 47% from the field (by comparison he’s topped that mark in six victories in the same time). His season average across the team’s 35 losses in which he has played is just 39%.
None of this is to place the blame for recent losses solely on Ross’ shoulders. But it does illustrate precisely how important his scoring is for the offensively challenged Magic. If the team is going to claim one of the final playoff spots they’ll need to hope that Ross spends more time scorching nets than tossing up bricks.
Taking advantage of the strength of schedule
It was really easy to look at playoff prediction models and strength of schedule breakdowns during the All-Star break and start penciling in the Magic for a first round series. The Magic have projected to have the third-easiest remaining schedule for the better part of a month now, yet they haven’t been able to take advantage. It was possible to wave off the loss to the Bulls as bad luck, but falling to the Knicks and then the Cavs (who were on a back-to-back and are still really, really bad) requires some mental gymnastics to be at peace with. In each game there was an obvious absence of effort and execution, which should be unacceptable for a team desperately trying to claw their way back to relevancy.
Orlando just started a stretch of seven games against teams for whom the playoffs are either incredibly unlikely or practically impossible. Maybe we should be more worried than the projections suggest.
Good. Bad. Up. Down. Jekyll. Hyde. If the Magic can get their act together and recapture their pre-break form the next time we measure trends it will be in anticipation of playoff basketball. Otherwise, it will be the odds associated with ping pong balls and debates regarding potential. Let’s keep the collective fingers crossed.