It’s good to be back. Basketball in the bubble began for the Magic yesterday with a tilt against Brooklyn, a high scoring affair that saw the Central Floridians claim an important first-up win. With it they vault over the Nets and into the seventh seed, establishing immediately the half-game edge in the standings they’ll now need to protect if they’re to avoid a first round showdown with Giannis and the rampaging Bucks. Contextually, it was the perfect start to proceedings at Disney.
But was it a perfect performance? Let’s figure out what the major takeaways from the post-hiatus opener can tell us about how the Magic are positioned.
When the offense was good it was very, very good
Coming into the game I wondered whether the Magic would be able to maintain the offensive momentum they established in February and March. Remember, in the final 12 games before the break they were the league’s deadliest offense, with a top-ranked offensive rating of 118.2! For one night, at least, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’.
A relatively modest start from the field soon turned into a cavalcade of baskets, led by the team’s sweet shooting swingman, Evan Fournier. He paced the Magic with 24 for the game, and importantly established an offensive tone in the first quarter by aggressively probing the heart of the defense with the ball in hand and prioritising attempts closer to the hoop. The floodgates officially burst on the back of three consecutive baskets from him in the second quarter, with a second long-range make in the closing minute of the half added for good measure. He was both patient and deliberate in the two-man game, and deadly when given any daylight around the perimeter.
Elsewhere, Nikola Vucevic eventually settled into the offensive fulcrum role we’ve come to expect from him, working as a screen setter, play maker, and dangerous roll man from the top of the key. The Magic were able to generate good looks for him in various mismatches throughout, and it’s no surprise that once he turned his attention to this (instead of his early icy shooting from deep) that he found a rhythm. Aaron Gordon and James Ennis were both also integral in ensuring that the starting unit were able to get the engine purring, if not with their volume than with their intent; both largely eschewed the three-pointer, instead using the threat of it to keep the opponent honest and instead capitalising with incisive off-ball cuts and drives to the hoop. It paid off, with the pair combining for 12 trips to the charity stripe, a welcome sight for an often free-throw anemic side.
The importance of movement wasn’t just limited to this particular duo. In fact, it was a concept that seemingly pushed the Magic’s offense to the heights it reached on the night. After a stagnant start the team regrouped out of the first time out, looking like a different unit to the one that opened the contest. The ball movement was crisper, with the team tilting the court in the search for better shots, and players demonstrating an eagerness to locate the extra pass. The team racked up 31 assists on 46 made field goals, with nine individual players recording a helping hand. They also had a quartet with at least 5, made up of Fournier, Vucevic, Markelle Fultz and (surprisingly!) Khem Birch. The ball was certainly moving.
That sense of motion also extended to the bodies on the floor, with the team moving with greater purpose when off-ball than they often seemed to show this season. The Magic employed a number of staggered screens, particularly on possessions from sideline inbounds, as well as a handful of pindowns and floppy-styled sets to either spring shooters or simply keep players moving and the defense reacting. Again, it worked, with Orlando’s players regularly finding a greater amount of space in front of them than expected when the ball came to hand.
The final piece of the movement puzzle came largely via contributions from the combination of Fultz and the returning Jonathan Isaac, who managed to fabricate some fast break opportunities for a side that was starved of them early. The defense that the pair are capable of producing is what often leads to such chances, and against the Nets it was no different. An Isaac smother created a Fultz finish in transition on one sequence in the first half, while in the second they teamed up again when the rangy point guard pounced on a deflection and found the streaking Isaac with an over-the-head pass into the open court. The pair played wonderfully together, with a feel for each other’s game that would leave one thinking it impossible that they hadn’t shared the court in seven months.
Looking through a broader lens, there are a number of positive observations to be made about the offensive numbers. As a team the Magic shot 52.9% from the field, a sizable advantage over their opponent that helped to make up for the relatively subdued number of triples they attempted (just 31, compared to 42 for Brooklyn). They were great at getting to the free-throw line, racking up 28 attempts and making 25 (89.3%). They were also pretty safe with the ball in hand; despite coughing up 14 total turnovers, 6 of those came in the final four-and-a-half minutes, when the game was out of hand and the intensity had dropped to something you might encounter in your local rec’ league. Six players hit double figures, with another three within a basket of that mark. It was a relatively even spread across all major offensive categories, demonstrating just how much of a team effort the performance was.
A lull at the start and again at the end potentially might obscure how good the Magic were with ball in hand throughout the game. However, it shouldn’t. Many of the things they were doing when the season shut down were on show again last night. Every game in which they do similar pushes the analysis away from unsustainable mirage and towards genuine momentum.
When the defense was bad it was very, very bad
With the offense again scorching nets for large chunks of the game, it would potentially make it very easy to overlook the need for thoughtful criticism of the defensive performance. How bad could it be in a game that was a thirty-point howler midway through the third? Well, at least in my estimation, the diplomatic answer to that question is ‘so-so’.
The Magic were absolutely roasted in the first quarter by the Nets’ offense, a fact that was brought painfully into focus across the game’s first four minutes. Some of this, undoubtedly, could be attributed to the rust of a long layoff, and the relative unfamiliarity of the starting lineup together. However, similar to the way that the offensive outburst echoed the team’s late season performance in that regard, so too did the defense sport the warts that had afflicted the team pre-hiatus.
As I’ve written previously, the Magic were downright diabolical in the last ten games before the break, particularly for a side that prides itself on its capacity as a stopper. The biggest malaise in their defensive game during this stretch was the surrendering of points in the paint, coupled with a rise in opponent field goal percentage. It took the team exactly eight seconds of bubble basketball to give up their first bucket at the basket, and when Head Coach Steve Clifford called for a huddle just 3:45 into the contest that number had already ballooned to 8. That soon became 18 of Brooklyn’s first 24 points, eventually settling at an obscene 20 for the first quarter alone and 50 for the game. That half-century figure is exactly what Orlando coughed up during their ten-game run of defensive futility, and that positioned them as the 23rd ranked side by defensive rating. Familiar echoes.
Why was this the case? Well, early on it was evident that the perimeter was proving porous for the Magic. Both DJ Augustin and Ennis were having problems staying in front of their respective match ups, with Caris LeVert and Chris Chiozza (!) taking full advantage and sashaying their way into the lane. Jarrett Allen was the primary beneficiary, scooping up hand offs and drop passes alike as Vucevic struggled to deny him deep position. This was also exacerbated by some lazy play when guarding the pick-and-roll; Orlando’s drop coverage helps a relatively immobile big guy like Vooch, but to the eye test it also results in a number of midrange or restricted zone attempts that are taken without a genuine contested hand in the face of the shooter (another haunting familiarity). It was on display again tonight in the early going.
The Magic pick-and-roll defense is struggling right now. Ennis leaves too early worried about Garret Temple at the above the break three and before Vucevic can recover. Great pass from LeVert pic.twitter.com/Bobf5n6wSL— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) July 31, 2020
The good news here is that the Magic were able to right the reeling ship. When Khem Birch checked in as the backup center he brought his customary energy and involvement at the rim, which helped to stem the tide inside. The injection of Isaac, Fultz and Michael Carter-Williams — all playing off the bench in what is almost undoubtedly the most defensively annoying reserve triumvirate in Magic history — pushed the intensity and energy up another notch, and Brooklyn began to find life with the ball in hand very difficult. They eventually settled at 48.4% for the game, a far cry from the conversion rate north of 60% that they enjoyed in the opening quarter.
Things obviously came off the rails in the fourth quarter, but I don’t know how much it’s really worth worrying about those minutes. The Magic went deep into their bench and the reserves played like they knew they were up 30 and without the chance to really stake a claim to a place further up the rotation. Zero energy, bad decision making, and lineup unfamiliarity ultimately resulted in the unit being hooked for the starters, a personal embarrassment but not a true reflection of the team’s standard of performance.
So the Magic started bad, but finished strong. Case closed, right? Well, maybe not so fast. It’s worth remembering that this Brooklyn team is almost certainly the worst outfit that the Magic will encounter in the bubble. As recently as two weeks ago they were hoping to trot out both Michael Beasley and a 40 year old Jamal Crawford, which should tell you everything you need to know about their injury woes. Orlando will need to be better. They eventually got their defense to sing the right tune, but it wasn’t without some recognisably discordant notes early. The Magic will soon be put to the test, and it’s not yet evident whether they’re ready to ace that playoff audition.
The other big talking point to emerge from the game was the absence of Mo Bamba in the non-garbage time rotation. Despite limited flashes it hasn’t been a great season for the second year center, and his bubble scrimmage performances didn’t really provide hope that much had changed after the hiatus. He found himself out of playing time entirely, with his minutes heading the way of Birch. In a shot to Bamba’s chances moving forward his Canadian counterpart was great, earning my third star for his tone-altering and stat-stuffing cameo.
Further hurting his case was his own play. Bamba finally got some junk minutes with the game out of hand, promptly delivering an uninspired and joyless four minutes that featured 0-3 shooting (all from deep) and a whopping -12 plus/minus. If he had reached his season average in playing time and maintained that performance, the Magic would have lost.
It’s probably unfair to pile on too heavily based on what we saw, but it was an incredibly disappointing showing. Despite the fact that the game was out of hand and he was playing largely with teammates he hasn’t seen too much of on the court this year, it would have been nice to witness the big guy really go for it. Instead, it likely just cemented Clifford’s view of the current rotation. Mo Bamba came into the bubble as Swole Bamba but is now definitively No Bamba in terms of the Magic’s on-court product.
One game down, seven to go. There’s plenty to like about what we saw from the Magic on night one in the bubble, but a deeper inspection reveals at least a handful of warning bells that should be starting to chime. Let’s hope that the team can find an upward trajectory when the games get a little tougher.