It’s been a busy start to the year for the Orlando Magic. Since January 2nd, their first game on the 2022 calendar, they’ve played eight times in fourteen nights, including three sets of back-to-backs and just a pair of dates in their own home building. Did I mention that seven of the eight have come against sides who project to make the playoffs come season’s end? I probably should have. It’s been a tough run!
And yet, despite both the challenges of the schedule and the 1-7 record the Magic have compiled across these contests, the team has been surprisingly competitive, a marked improvement over the first couple of months of their campaign. In the new year Orlando has suffered just two losses that have come by more than six points, and even one of those – the tilt against the 76ers – was within a basket with less than two minutes to play. Almost every game has featured a genuinely competitive fourth quarter, even if the side hasn’t been great at executing in these clutch moments.
Still, that counts as tangible improvement – the Magic are putting themselves in a position where winning is a real possibility.
If you’re wondering what’s changed, there are a couple of telling factors to point to. The simplest, perhaps, is that the team is starting to regain some semblance of health, particularly in key positions. For example, they’re no longer relying on emergency call-ups and the general disruption to rotations and familiarity that they bring. It’s also no surprise that the return of Jalen Suggs – and his deployment as the point guard of the second unit – coincided with the team’s first win of 2022; unavailability has meant that finding a reserve to competently quarterback the team for stretches has been a near impossibility for the Magic for much of this season.
Suggs also figures to help another improving element of the Magic’s recent play, namely their defense. Across their last eight Orlando has compiled the eleventh most effective team defense, giving up just 108.3 points per-100 possessions (they were actually eighth before the lethargic loss to the Mavericks). This represents a significant leap over the mark of 112.2 that the side has posted on the season, and would be good roughly for a top-ten mark should it play out over the length of the campaign. Considering the length, youth and general proclivities of the roster, this sort of defensive play is what the Magic should consistently be aspiring to.
It’s unlikely that the odds will be heavily in Orlando’s favor tonight – after all, they are 8-36 on the season – but the game against the injury-depleted Blazers does represent a chance to get another win on the board. Portland has been pretty good at scoring the ball over their last eight games, with an offensive rating of 113.5 points per-100 possessions that ranks eleventh league-wide in that time. The Magic have already experienced some recent success slowing down high-scoring outfits, including the Hornets (the 3rd ranked offensive rating on the season), the Bulls (4th), and the 76ers (11th). They’ll like their chances of doing the same again here, particularly considering the absence of Damian Lillard.
In terms of flipping the final result, however, the key difference here is that Portland has been one of the absolute worst defensive sides in basketball in the new year, with a horrific defensive rating of 120.4 across their last eight contests. They should theoretically offer significantly less resistance than some of the stouter sides that the Magic have tussled with recently, including the Mavericks (the leagues’ best defense over their last eight), the 76ers (2nd), and the Celtics (6th).
Orlando should be confident that they can slow down Portland some, specifically because they’ve recently been able to do just that against similarly high-flying outfits. The team will also like their chances of kickstarting an offense that has been sluggish all year long. The Blazers and their recently porous resistance represent an opportunity to be seized.
If they can, the Magic have a good chance to secure another character-building win. One that, importantly, continues to lay the type of long-term foundation for who this team ultimately wants to be.