When things were going well for the Magic, it all started on teh defensive end of the floor. Orlando had a top-10 defensive team in the league and could at least make a game ugly to stay in it.
That mentality seemed to dissipate after Glen Davis' injury and as the young players took on a bigger role for the team. The attention to detail from the Magic seemed to be going away on the defensive end and it made the roster's offensive shortcomings even more apparent.
The potential is there and to defeat the 76ers on Sunday, the Magic needed to reach back and find it.
After giving up 30 points in the first quarter and then 51.2 percent shooting in the first half, Orlando held Philadelphia to 40 second-half points on 41.9 percent shooting and 1-for-7 shooting from beyond the arc. The Magic showed they had some grit and determination to close games as their own hot shooting cooled off. It was the kind of grind-it-out win that you expect more from a veteran team perhaps.
The Magic used their veteran lineup to get the win but many players contributed on the defensive end. Philadelphia was unable to grind it out in the fourth quarter after the two teams went back and forth for almost the entire second half — the biggest lead of the half was eight points and there were 10 lead changes.
In the end, Philadelphia was unable to keep pace. The 76ers missed free throws down the stretch and the Magic got some big baskets from Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo to secure a 99-91 win at Amway Center on Sunday, snapping a seven-game home losing streak that spanned the previous month.
"We kind of just talked about how our approach needed to be a little bit better," Jacque Vaughn said. "There were stages in the game, it was kind of like gears. We started in first gear and then there was the six-minute timeout and we kind of amped it up into second gear a little bit. Eventually in the second half we got into fourth gear. I think it was kind of a game of gears and finally we ramped it up a little bit."
That has not always been the case for Orlando. Sometimes it seems like when the offense is not going well, other aspects of the game — particularly the defensive end — tend to collapse. That is the sign of a young team. And you hardly ever talk about "gears" when looking at a team with 17 wins on the season.
But defense really was the key feeding the Magic's strong offensive showing in this game and keeping the Magic in the game. Philadelphia was able to force nine turnovers and covert them into 13 points in the second half alone and Orlando struggled taking care of the ball for much of the game — perhaps preventing Orlando from pulling away at various points.
However, the Magic found a way to get stops when they were truly needed.
Nikola Vucevic controlled the glass as he usually does 17 rebounds, including 15 on the defensive end, to go with his 14 points. He blocked two shots and challenged a few more. He picked up fouls on some of those blocks, but the message was clear.
Protecting the rim is not something Vucevic is typically very good at, but it is something he clearly improved upon in this game. He said that it is an area that he knows he needs to improve in and that his work around the glass certainly helped the Magic defensively tonight.
"I think we’re pretty tough mentally as a team," Nikola Vucevic said. "We stick together and that is the most important thing. It has been a tough year. We haven’t gotten a lot of wins. There have been a lot of close games that we lost. It is easy for everyone to separate and start doing their own thing. But we really stick together and play as a team so we can get as many wins as we can before the end of the season."
That mental toughness has been on display in several close games of late as Orlando has had to fight from behind to make games out of several contests. The Magic had the confidence tonight to close out.
Orlando had a one-point lead with about four minutes to play but were able to grab an offensive rebound and get Jameer Nelson a 3-pointer to spark a 10-4 run to close the game. The Magic defensively forced jumpers throughout the night and stuck to Vaughn's plan of keeping guards like Jrue Holiday (eight points on 4-for-16 shooting) out of the lane. It made things tough for Philadelphia to generate offense.
Arron Afflalo did his part at the end of the game too scoring six of his 17 points in the final quarter, including a key jumper 1:53 left that gave the Magic a four point lead. He followed it up with a 3-pointer from the corner with about a minute left that all but sealed the deal.
"Just move the ball and do what we do," Tobias Harris said of the change defensively for the Magic. "Get stops on defense, get out in transition. Just play together. Once we did that, we were fine. I think that’s real key [learning that it is defense which sparks offense], especially for a team like us being a young team building good habits. Defense is going to create offense. Once we get stops and convert on the offensive end, we’ll be fine."
If every game affords the Magic some lesson, that might be it. Orlando has to commit itself to the defensive game plan and stick with it even when shots are not falling, like they were not in the third quarter.
The Magic turned in a strong effort and ground out a victory thanks to the work from some of their veteran players. Wins are wins and for a team like this, learning lessons like these while winning are incredibly important.
"A win is always good," Harris said. "No matter where you’re at, against whoever, a win is always good."