The Magic sat at a season worst 11 games under .500, and had dropped their 11th game in their previous 14 contests. Things were looking just as bleak as they had the previous three seasons when the Magic endured hard months of January, and fell out of contention and ultimately back into a high lottery spot.
Start of season to 1/29
From opening night, the Magic were a middle of the pack defensive team, and were one of the worst offensive units in the league. While they moved the ball at a high rate — something the team has talked endlessly about all season — they were a poor rebounding team, and it hurt them.
Yet, despite their poor play in some areas, this season was different, and the Magic, led by first year head coach Steve Clifford, responded to their struggles in a way they hadn’t done in years past: winning.
Following the loss to the Thunder, the Magic won seven of their final eight games leading up to the All-Star break, including dominating wins over the Milwaukee Bucks — albeit without likely league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo — the New Orleans Pelicans and the Charlotte Hornets. The surge suddenly made the Magic the hottest team in the league, and brought them roaring back into the playoff race.
While they came out of the break a little flat, dropping games to the lowly Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers, they were able to put together quality wins against the Toronto Raptors, Golden State Warriors and Indiana Pacers.
Despite their still sometimes up-and-down play, the overall product on the floor was becoming more consistent, and it was clear the team was playing the way they had to. The defense, which the team has talked about being it’s backbone for multiple years, finally began to show itself.
January 29th till April 8th
Over their last 30 games, the Magic have turned into a juggernaut on defense, and have let that turn into more positive play on the offensive end. The ball has been moving at an even better pace than it was early in the season, which has allowed them to find easier offense.
Add in the massive improvement rebounding the ball — they also boast a 76.9 percent defensive rebounding rate, the best in the league over this time — and it’s no wonder as to why they’ve seen such vast improvement in their play.
So what changed for the Magic? What helped them turn their season around?
“Less turnovers, better rebounding and then our defense obviously has been the biggest difference,” said Clifford recently. “The other thing I would say is we’ve played better at home. We struggled at home early in the year. I would say most of our really poor performances came in our own building, and lately we’ve played really well here.”
Through January 29th, the Magic were just 12-15 at home, with two of those wins coming as pseudo home games which were played in Mexico City. Since the loss to the Thunder on their home floor that night, the Magic have gone 13-1 at home, and have won their last nine overall at the Amway Center.
Protecting home court is extremely important in the league, and the best teams are able to do it night-in and night-out. Of the 16 teams who are currently in the playoffs in both conferences, only the Brooklyn Nets have won fewer than 25 games on their home floor. The top four teams record wise in the league — Milwaukee, Toronto, Golden State and Denver — have gone a combined 128-34 at home this season, good enough for a 79 percent mark.
Another key thing was Clifford finally finding two units he could use, and trust.
Through the first half of the season, Jerian Grant held the backup point guard role, and struggled. When he was on the floor, the team was disorganized, and the pace fell to almost a dead stop and there was no flow.
Once Isaiah Briscoe was inserted into the lineup, and Mo Bamba went down with a season-ending leg injury, and Khem Birch was given his minutes behind Nikola Vucevic, things suddenly changed for the Magic second unit. Now, with Michael Carter-Williams at the helm due to a knee injury for Briscoe, the second unit has continued it’s stellar play, and has been a huge reason why the Magic improved so much on both ends of the floor.
“Teams change throughout the season, obviously” said Evan Fournier. “The stretch we had before the All-Star break was big. It gave us belief, and it kind of set the tone for the rest of the season. I think that was a bit moment for us.”
The Magic were one of the teams that changed the most over the second half of the season. Before their final game on Wednesday night in Charlotte, the Magic held the third best record in the league since January 30th, trailing only the Houston Rockets and Bucks.
While there’s a lot of peaks and valleys throughout the season, the 2018/19 season was a tale of two different tapes for the Magic. The first one was one they would like to soon forget, but one that ultimately helped them learn and grow into the success they had late.
The second one shows them the way they have to play to be successful, and gives them a blueprint not only for their first playoff appearance since 2011/12, but also to build and have an even more successful 2019/20 season.