Things rarely come easily for young teams in the NBA. With eleven players on their active roster under the age of 25, the Orlando Magic know all too well how difficult the growing pains and grind of an NBA season can be on a youthful and inexperienced roster.
But after an incredibly rough start to their season, the Magic seem to have perhaps turned somewhat of a corner, winning four of their seven games since the All-Star break.
“We started the season kind of rough,” veteran guard Terrence Ross told reporters Wednesday. “But we’re definitely coming around now, understanding what it takes to win games. Anytime you can do that, get that understanding (of what it takes), it makes things that much easier going forward.”
Wednesday night in New Orleans was a prime example of how far this team has come, earning their 10th victory of the year on the road. The Magic were able to withstand multiple second half runs by a Pelicans team that has been playing well since trading for guard CJ McCollum.
Interestingly enough, it was Orlando’s second unit that closed the game out and secured the win for the Magic Wednesday night, not the usual starters.
“(I just want to say) what a great job our second unit did,” Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley told reporters after the game Wednesday night. “Being prepared to play down the stretch, especially on the second night of a back-to-back. These guys were ready to play, and they played well together.”
Mosley elected to go with a lineup consisting of RJ Hampton, Gary Harris, Chuma Okeke, Moritz Wagner, and Ross down the stretch in New Orleans (combined for 50 points off the bench). And again, despite late efforts by the Pelicans to close the gap, the decision to stick with the second unit paid off for Orlando’s first-year head coach.
“A lot of it was the momentum of the game,” Mosley said. “They had done a great job sustaining some (New Orleans) runs. And then I looked over at our bench and - Cole (getting hit Tuesday night), Mo Bamba getting bumped around a little bit, Jalen (and trying to control his minutes with his ankle), I just wanted to be smart. And we had such a great chemistry and camaraderie going, I just wanted to stay with it.”
“I thought the second unit did a great job,” Magic guard Cole Anthony added after the game Wednesday. Anthony scored 19 points in 25 minutes against the Pelicans. “I mean, we got the win, so shout out to them.”
the bench showed out last night pic.twitter.com/ZNErQsyGhO— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) March 10, 2022
So what has been working for the Magic of late, and what is going to be able to help sustain them moving forward - for the rest of this season and beyond?
Their team defense.
“That’s two nights in a row holding an opponent to 102 points,” Mosley said of his team’s defensive effort Wednesday night. “That’s what we talk about, that’s what we’re going to hang our hats on - on the defensive end. Our guys understand that. Tonight we happened to also make some shots, but to sit down and guard is what we’re going to hang our hats on nightly.”
In fact, Orlando currently (and surprisingly) owns the league’s best defensive rating since the All-Star break (104.7). The Magic have held their opponents to less than 105 points in four of their seven post-All-Star break contests.
“I think the main thing is, as a team, we’ve been really tied together on a string,” Anthony said of his team’s strong defensive play of late. “We’ve just - rotations, we’ve been on point with that. Having each other’s backs, and just making multiple efforts (as a team). I think that’s just really been the key for our defense being what it is right now.”
“We’re just playing together, and understanding what our defense can do for our team,” Ross added after Wednesday night’s game. “A lot of what we do (on defense) helps our offense tremendously, so we’re tied in on defense. For the most part, we understand the coverages, the lingo, the situations. So I think - especially for the younger guys - they’re learning a lot, and taking it from practice to the court.”
Orlando’s stellar defensive play will be tested Friday night in a big way, as the Minnesota Timberwolves come to town. Minnesota boasts a top-ten offense (7th in offensive rating, 1st in points per game), and they play at the second fastest pace in the NBA.
That’s likely why, despite their strong defensive play of late, the Magic are heavy underdogs (+7) in their Friday night contest against the Timberwolves at the Amway Center.
The Timberwolves are no strangers to competing with a youthful roster. Minnesota currently has eleven players on their roster 25 years-old or younger, notably second-year guard Anthony Edwards (20), who’s averaging 21.3 points per game this season.
Edwards returned to the lineup for the Timberwolves Wednesday night for their home win against Oklahoma City after missing the first week of March with knee tendinitis.
The former first overall pick from the 2020 NBA Draft had a cold month of February, scoring a season-low 16.5 points in 12 games (37.8 percent shooting, 25.3 percent from beyond the arc).
But for Minnesota, it’s all about the steady and stellar play of their franchise cornerstone, All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns.
Towns is averaging 24.5 points (fifth time in his career averaging over 24.0 points), 9.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists (third consecutive season averaging over 3.5 assists), and 1.2 blocks (has averaged over 1.0 block per game in all seven seasons of his career) in 2021-22.
The former first overall pick from the 2015 NBA Draft is shooting 52.9 percent from the floor, and 40.4 percent on three-point field goal attempts (5.0 3PTA’s per game).
Minnesota comes to town scorching hot, winners of six in a row, and seven of their eight contests since the All-Star break.
Towns, who was recognized as an All-Star this season for the third time in his career, has averaged 24.9 points and 9.7 rebounds for the Timberwolves over their successful eight-game stretch.
He scored 23 points and pulled down 16 rebounds against the Magic back in early November (a 115-97 loss to Orlando).
In a lot of ways, the Timberwolves are a model for what the Magic organization is trying to do. Minnesota has built through the draft, they’ve suffered through more than their fair share of losing to get to where they are at now.
But unlike Orlando (recently, at least), Minnesota has been lucky enough to win the Draft Lottery, positioning themselves to take superstars such as Towns and Edwards. They were also in a position to acquire D’Angelo Russell in ‘19 by trading away another of their former first overall picks in Andrew Wiggins.
The Timberwolves get things done with their high-powered offense. The Magic want to hang their hats on the defensive end. But ultimately, Minnesota has taken their lumps as a young team, and have clearly emerged late in the season as a threat in the Western Conference (currently 7th in the Western Conference standings, two games back of sixth-seeded Denver Nuggets).
That’s where Orlando wants to be, not this season, but in seasons to come. A young team, in the thick of a playoff push, and ready to make some noise in their respective conference.
Anthony, who exploded for 31 points (6-11 3PTA’s), 9 rebounds, and 8 assists in the matchup with Minnesota (in Minneapolis) in November, knows what it’s going to continue to take for his incredibly young team to get to where the Timberwolves are now.
Just continue to work.
“We work hard as a team. Everyone works hard individually, and we work hard for each other,” Anthony told reporters Wednesday night. “So, to see us start to get some wins, and to be recognized (with the best Defensive Rating in the NBA - post All-Star break), that's pretty cool stuff.”
With a hungry young team, a coach that’s going to continue to preach defense, and veterans such a Ross and Harris consistently modeling how to do things the right way, the Magic will get there soon enough.
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