Just like that it’s over.
On Monday night the Magic saw their winning streak come to a cruel end, a late comeback in Atlanta spoiled after a slight foul gifted the Hawks a pair of last-second free-throws. Six could very easily have become seven.
With the team now setting its collective sights on a new run, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on some of the bright spots to emerge from the half-dozen victories. Let’s unpack six different ways that Orlando’s six-game winning streak put smiles on pinstriped dials across Central Florida.
Reason to smile #1 - They did it with defense
At 5-20 it looked like the wheels were about to completely come off of Orlando’s campaign, a damaging inattention to defensive detail damning the team’s odds of winning on any given night. Critically, in the six games immediately after the near double-digit losing streak, the Magic were able to find a level of cohesion at the defensive end of the floor, thankfully evident in a number of ways: a renewed level of energy and communication; a cleaner execution of rotations and switches; and a re-commitment to effort skills like boxing out and screen navigation. The team’s defense became the driver of their winning play.
On only three occasions this season have the Magic held an opponent below 100 points; two of those games occurred during the six-game winning streak. The team’s defensive rating of 107.0 qualified as the sixth best league-wide during the stretch, a vast improvement over the 24th ranked 114.1 they’ve posted on the season. Orlando also managed to effectively control the lane, limiting the opposition to an average of just 42.3 paint points each night – 7.1 fewer than the team’s season average – by nullifying transition opportunities and taking away driving lanes. And even though the absence of Wendell Carter Jr. meant that the team continued to struggle with contests specifically at the rim, they were better at limiting those chances in the first place and then ending possessions with a defensive rebound when necessary.
Now, it must be pointed out that the Magic undoubtedly benefited from some defensive luck during the winning streak. Opponents made just 28.8% of their three-point attempts across the six games, a rate which is 6.7% points below what that shot diet would be expected to return on average. And while there might be some inclination to suggest that the long limbs up and down the lineup contributed to that result, it’s actually true that Orlando contested fewer three-point shots during the stretch than they normally do. In a ‘make or miss’ league, the Magic experienced a heavy dose of ‘miss’ in their favor.
Still, Orlando’s defense during the streak is what ultimately put the team in a position to win. Naturally possessed of some offensive limitations, it’s imperative that they make contests competitive by keeping the opposition contained; that’s exactly what happened during this stretch. The Magic upped the effort, worked hard to limit high-percentage shots inside the arc, contested enough of the dangerous ones beyond the arc, and, not coincidentally, basically abandoned their sieve-like zone. In doing so, they’ve been able to play much more like the type of defensive unit that many projected, sustaining an effective level of performance for a not insignificant stretch of the season. They’ve established a road map for success, and it starts with defense.
Reason to smile #2 - At times the offense was pretty great as well
Our own Jorie Mickens already wrote about the absurdly impressive first quarter explosion against the Hawks in detail, a twelve minute sequence that was in many ways a microcosm of the improved offense that the Magic flashed during the streak. It featured deliberate, decisive and frequent motion that created mismatched opportunities for the side’s length, a willingness to attack the hoop that hasn’t been seen in Central Florida much the last few years, and confident outside shooting off the back of willing ball movement. Sure the team shot the lights out across those twelve minutes, but plenty of that was because of the quality of shots their play was generating. Pleasingly, we frequently saw those same factors at play plenty of other times during the streak. It’s a step towards turning potential into habit.
There were also a number of individual offensive highlights evident across the six games. Paolo Banchero continued his beastly scoring, elevating his free-throw rate even further as he powered his way to 22.8 points per game. Franz Wagner also crashed through the twenty point barrier, putting up 21.2 courtesy of more looks from both deep and the charity stripe. His brother-in-basketball-crime, Moe Wagner, was a revelation with his 15.0 points each night, arrived at courtesy of jaw-dropping 50/40/100 shooting splits. It was this trio that led the Magic’s charge on the scoreboard.
Elsewhere, Bol Bol’s outside stroke dropped off a little, but he continued to convert just about everything around the basket, providing a dozen points each night in a supporting role that featured his usual smattering of unicorn-like transition and isolation sequences. Markelle Fultz was the on-court conductor that the team needed, his 5.2 assists pacing the Magic and fueling the side’s unselfish passing game. Cole Anthony pushed his finishing numbers above 50.0%, scoring 13.2 points per-game as the team’s vital bench spark plug. Even Admiral Schofield had some big moments, including some key fourth quarter shooting in the second win over the Celtics.
The Magic are still a long way from being a dynamic offensive outfit. But as this stretch demonstrated, there are enough complementary scoring skills on the roster to drive a competent offense. Let’s hope we see more of this moving forward.
Reason to smile #3 - Paolo Banchero unleashed the long ball
Apparent from literally his first game in the big leagues is the fact that Banchero is the type of big-time scorer that the Magic have so long coveted. The rookie immediately placed himself alongside some of the NBA’s all-time greats with his offensive exploits, flashing a powerful driving game as well as a nasty ability to generate contact on his way to the rack to fuel his early point-scoring barrage. In fact, about the only thing that was missing was a consistent outsider jumper. What might the dynamic freshman look like if he suddenly unleashed that level of offensive sorcery from his bag of tricks?
Well, we’re starting to get an answer to that very question. In the games prior to the winning streak, Banchero was converting from deep at just 24.6% (16-65), his position on the team as the second-least accurate long-range shooter jarringly contrasting with the fourth-ranked volume of his attempts. In the six wins? The dynamic rookie completely inverted his three-point performance, drilling 14 of the 30 (46.7%) looks from beyond the arc that he saw. Those numbers placed him second in terms of both total attempts (behind only Franz’s 33) and accuracy (trailing only Fultz’s carefully arrived at 50.0%). Banchero was the Magic’s most dependable three-point threat.
Optimistically, Paolo was drilling the attempts coming specifically from his favored long-range spot – above the break. On the season more than 85% of the threes he has launched have come from up high, with just 14 total across the two corners. Pleasingly, the big man was 13-25 (52.0%) on these specific attempts during the winning streak, emphasized most boldly in the second contest against the Celtics. He flashed a smoothness and a confidence working both off the catch and from out of his own dribble, his 6 of 7 effort appearing largely unstoppable due to the combination of his size and release speed.
While it’s unlikely that Banchero maintains that level of three-point shooting moving forward, it’s also equally unlikely that he reverts all the way back to the depths of his early long-range struggles. With greater acclimation we’re starting to get a feel for how he projects as a shooter, the winning streak solidifying the belief that he will eventually emerge as an above-average threat from beyond the arc. The three-ball is basically a required component for an effective offensive profile in the modern NBA, the six-win sample proving that it can be a featured component of Banchero’s individual resume.
Reason to smile #4 - Markelle Fultz made a difference
It’s been touched on previously, but there’s just something about the way that Fultz plays that makes the Magic a better basketball side. It’s a noticing perhaps most pronounced in the team’s winning percentage when he lines up as a starter. Let’s outline the (obviously injury-abbreviated) evidence to date:
- As a starter in 2022/23 Fultz wins at a rate of .545 (6-5) – without Fultz as a starter the Magic win at a rate of just .238 (5-16)
- As a starter in 2021/22 Fultz won at a rate of .667 (2-1) – without Fultz as a starter the Magic won at a rate of just .253 (20-59)
- As a starter in 2020/21 Fultz won at a rate of .750 (6-2) – without Fultz as a starter the Magic won at a rate of just .234 (15-49)
- As a starter in 2019/20 Fultz won at a rate of .483 (29-31) – without Fultz as a starter the Magic won at a rate of just .308 (4-9)
Putting it all together reveals that:
- Overall, with Fultz as a starter the Magic have won at a rate of .524 (43-39) – without Fultz as a starter the Magic have won at a rate of just .331 (44-133)
Fultz has drawn starting assignments in each of his full seasons in Orlando, the team always notching a significantly better winning percentage during those games that he opens (and usually closes). During this recent winning stretch it was primarily about his playmaking acumen, the injection of a dependable point guard into a rotation that was basically bereft of backcourt options during his absence. He was able to effectively get the team into its favored sets, create opportunities for his teammates, and even add an extra wrinkle with his own mid-range game. He was also solid defensively, adding some extra foot speed at the point of attack and acting as a turnover irritant in recent games (9 steals in the last three wins).
With any evaluation of his play during this stretch it should be noted that Fultz was and still actually is re-acclimating after his return from injury; the product that we’ve seen remains far from finished. His shooting touch can still get better. He can refine his work with pick-and-roll partners. His assist to turnover ratio, while acceptable for a lead guard, is an area that could be further improved, a fact which his ‘9 assists against a single turnover’ outing against the Hawks proved.
Perhaps most importantly, Fultz makes life easier for his key teammates. It’s no coincidence that both Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner popped during the winning stretch with their backcourt running mate. He simplifies their role by relieving them of some of their playmaking duties, while also helping them get cleaner looks. It remains to be seen whether he’s a perfect long-term fit alongside this pair, but his play over the last two weeks suggests that there is definitely some potential to the alignment.
Reason to smile #5 - The wins were of a good quality
As much fun as it was to simply have been watching winning basketball, the nature of the victories that the Magic secured were perfect for a rebuilding team looking to generate confidence and forge an identity. Most of the players on the roster know little at the professional level beyond losing, so success across a two-week stretch of genuinely competitive basketball against genuinely good opposition is the type of experience that can serve as a genuine turning point for a young team.
The Magic prevailed over the Clippers in a tight overtime tussle. They beat the Raptors in a close one on the road. They out-dueled the Hawks in a high-octane shootout. They accounted for both Boston and Toronto in comfortable fourth quarter closeouts. They then wrapped up the streak by coming from behind to once again take down the league-leading Celtics. Each win was over a team firmly embedded within the playoff picture. Each win was over a team that was heavily favored. Each win served to build the confidence of a young team still figuring out what they can be.
At the end of the day each win is worth the same in the standings. But for this iteration of the Magic, a sustained stretch of success against genuine competition is basically invaluable.
Reason to smile #6 - There’s still some serious talent to return
Something that shouldn’t be overlooked is the fact that the Magic rotation from this winning streak is still a long way from the ideally envisioned version that the roster promises. Orlando was able to triumph despite ostensibly being down two starters, with both Wendell Carter Jr. and Jalen Suggs due to rejoin the team in the not too distant future. Their return to play projects to further strengthen the defensive identity of the team, while also injecting a little more punch into the bench unit when Bol is redeployed elsewhere within the rotation. In addition, Gary Harris is an upgrade over the current Kevon Harris minutes, while Chuma Okeke and even RJ Hampton have the potential to improve the team’s performance on the wing as deeper reserves.
(Plus, without looking too far forward, remember that at this point in the rebuild Orlando is positioned to add another significant piece or two, perhaps as soon as the looming trade deadline. Or, if not, certainly during the next offseason.)
Right now there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the Orlando Magic. Even though they’ve already relinquished the rapidity of their recent winning pace, the stretch of sustained success speaks to the potential of the roster moving forward. That multiple avenues of improvement – namely internal development, increased availability and talent accumulation – are not only viable but likely speaks to the pinstriped positivity currently beaming out of the sunny climes of Central Florida.