The Magic are a team in need of a time-out. Losers of four straight and six of their last seven, the current four-day break gifted to them by the schedule couldn’t have hit at a better time. There’s been an evident lack of energy and execution during recent contests, something that will have to be addressed if the side is going to do more than just make up the numbers in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
No better place to start than in a crucial showdown with the first-place Miami Heat on Saturday at Amway Center.
Orlando currently sit in seventh place in the East, one win ahead of Brooklyn and two in front of a Chicago side that has been playing better recently. However, such an observation is actually somewhat misleading about their current place in the pecking order; there are almost as many games between the Magic and the sixth-placed 76ers (10) as there are between the last-placed Hawks and Orlando (9). There’s an obvious gulf between the haves and have-nots.
At the moment it would be fair to say that there are six good basketball sides in the Eastern Conference. Orlando would have expected to count themselves among that group before the season started. Now, just to sniff the conversation, they’re going to have to play some inspired ball in the season’s back half. If they can’t snap out of the funk that’s plaguing them all the Magic can hope for is to be the best of a bad bunch.
By contrast, their opponent on Saturday, Miami — probably the surprise of the East — are a very good basketball team. Jimmy Butler is the dominant alpha dog that side needed, and his arrival has vaulted the team into contention. They’re currently slotted in as the third seed, with a 32-15 record and the fourth-strongest differential in the conference. And while they’re almost unbeatable at home (23-2), the good news for the Magic is that this game will be played in Orlando. To this point, the season series has been split down the middle, with both sides hosting victories on their homecourt. Let’s hope that’s an omen for Saturday’s tilt.
Miami have made an impression on defense this season, with a number of adaptable defenders up and down the roster. Everyone is aware of Butler’s reputation as a perimeter hound, but it’s third-year big Bam Adebayo that is the lynchpin of the Heat’s aggressive switching. His athleticism allows him to play all the way out to the perimeter, taking away the mismatches that opponents would usually seek out in the pick-and-roll. He’ll be an All-Star this year, a well-deserved nod for a player exhibiting a real and impactful leap.
Somewhat surprisingly, Miami are an even better side offensively. They currently rank seventh league-wide in offensive rating, putting up 112.3 points per-100 possessions; it’s a figure that dwarfs Orlando’s mark of 105.6 (good only for 25th). The Heat have six players putting up double figure points (seven if you count the long-sidelined Justise Winslow), including the rookie trio of Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn (who will likely miss the game against the Magic) and Duncan Robinson. All three have been deadly from the outside, tossing up more attempts per contest than just about anyone on the team and converting at rates of 43.8% (Robinson), 38.8% (Nunn), and 35.6% (Herro). Add to that the consistency of Butler, the playmaking of Adebayo, and an overqualified sixth man in Goran Dragic, and you can see how the side has evolved into a deadly scoring outfit.
Although a number of tricky questions await the Magic ahead of this contest, two in particular stand out. Firstly, who will draw the job of being the primary defender on Butler? Aaron Gordon might be the best suited, but the fact that Miami’s star lines up as a guard (despite being listed as a forward on the All-Star ballot - go figure), such a defensive alignment would strain the team elsewhere. Such a move would likely land Khem Birch in the starting four role, and it’s not clear how effectively he would match up with the perimeter oriented Heat. How Orlando approach defensive assignments is going to be very interesting.
Secondly, can Terrence Ross find some form? The Human Torch has been all but extinguished during the last three games, shooting a combined 10-43 (23.2%) during the cold stretch and reaching double figures just once. As many would know, the team’s fortunes largely go as his shooting does; in wins this season he’s making 44% of his field goal attempts, compared to just 36% in losses. His three-point stroke also takes a similar tumble, dropping from 38% when victorious to a frigid 28% in defeat. The Magic desperately need their bench spark plug to come alive.
With the All-Star break just seven games away and the home stretch looming it is imperative that Orlando start to right their increasingly rocky ship. They’ll have the chance to do just that on Saturday night against their state rivals. The run home starts now.
Who: Orlando Magic (21-27) vs. Miami Heat (32-15)
When: Saturday at 7 p.m.
Where: Amway Center - Orlando, Florida (Tickets)
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