Orlando Magic begin forming identity after six preseason games

The Orlando Magic's Aaron Gordon dunks against the Cleveland Cavaliers in preseason action at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic's Aaron Gordon dunks against the Cleveland Cavaliers in preseason action at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic completed their preseason with some disappointment. But in the last two weeks, the team began to form an identity and build itself up.

Elfrid Payton is a whir in transition. His hair flopping and bobbing up and down with each pound of the basketball as he races upcourt. The Cleveland Cavaliers are not giving him much of a lane to the basket as they try to close him down. But he is already there, getting into the middle of the paint and waiting for the defense to close in.

That is when Elfrid Payton put the pass on point to Aaron Gordon in the corner. With little hesitation, Aaron Gordon set himself and shot the 3-pointer draining it.

If there is a play that defines who this Orlando Magic team wants to be on offense, this is the one.

If that is not your speed, try the first half possession where Evan Fournier got the ball in transition drove through the middle of a retreating defense and flipped the ball up to no spot in particular. Just someone nearby for Gordon to grab the ball with one hand and stuff it down.

Orlando wants to play this way. They talked all preseason long about playing at a faster pace, pushing the tempo and getting out in transition. That was the benefit of going small, in their estimation. A situation that worked to some effect throughout the second half of last season.

If the preseason was going to accomplish anything it was to help the Magic find an identity. Throughout the last six preseason games, including Friday’s 113-106 loss to the Cavaliers, the Magic began etching an identity out.

"“I think we are a team that is playing fast,” Payton said. “I think that is noticeable. Still building that defensive identity, making strides, but we have something to work on.”"

The Magic recorded 17 fast-break points in the game Friday night, as a momentary example. Orlando also turned 22 Cavaliers turnovers into 26 points. The Magic totaled 27 assists in Friday’s game and had 17 assists at halftime.

Orlando, at the very least, will be a team this year that takes advantage of mistakes, using their athleticism and speed to pounce and attack quickly. Offensively, the Magic were moving quickly into their sets and moving the ball quickly to each other.

Payton said he was encouraged by the team’s pace throughout the preseason. It was hard not to notice how quickly the team was playing and getting out in transition with Payton leading the way. It may not be something they can maintain for 48 minutes, but it is definitely a step forward for a team that has struggled in almost every aspect for the last five years.

Points can come in bunches with one energy play following another. The Magic do not let teams rest.

So, at the very least, this will be a fun style. In one stretch in the second quarter, the Magic had alley-oops on three consecutive possessions, sparking a late run to put the Magic up three at halftime. Orlando got some energy from these big plays.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

If the Magic showed their fans anything during the preseason, it was at least that there is some entertainment value both in their style of play and how they can execute. And that might be enough to invest in.

"“Our fans are going to love watching this team this year,” coach Frank Vogel said. “You can see us getting out on the break and the lob dunks and inside-out threes and EP attacking. There’s a lot to be excited about with this team. Got to make sure we’re efficient on the offensive end and playing with the pass. And obviously, we have to improve on the defensive end.”"

There were still moments where the offense struggled. And struggled mightily.

As the pace slows, the team can bog down offensively without a consistent attacker in the half court and consistent shooting. When the Magic are making their 3-pointers, they can score with ease. When they are struggling to make 3-pointers, as they did in the fourth quarter, albeit with their starters sitting the final frame, when they made just 2 of 12, they can find it difficult.

That is when their other flaws are exposed. It all comes back to the biggest part of the Magic’s identity yet to be formed.

To succeed this season, the Magic will have to play better defense overall.

Orlando put together some strong defensive statistics — 94.0 defensive rating overall for the preseason — but it was a bit of a mirage. As Vogel noted after the game, preseason stats are very misleading.

Orlando struggled with ball containment throughout the preseason. The team was still getting down its switching schemes. The Magic were good for several stretches, but they struggled plenty in others. Orlando got sucked in too much covering for each other and often left shooters open. It was a consistent problem that never truly got solved.

Cleveland was finally the team to make Orlando pay.

The shorthanded Cavaliers reminded the Magic of this. Cleveland shot 50 percent for the game and shot 29 free throws for the game. Orlando, in coach Frank Vogel’s accounting, was sloppy with its ball containment and closeouts on shooters.

Throughout the preseason, the Magic talked about how they needed better communication on this end. It was clear Orlando was still getting on the same page.

The team still has a long way to go. And it knows it.

"“It’s easy to get complacent in the preseason,” Gordon said. “To match up with the Eastern Conference finalists and come up short, it shows us that we have a lot of work to do. But we also have a very, very talented team.”"

Maybe there is a silver lining in that. Orlando could clearly see those flaws in getting beat up in this game. It gives them something to work on and focus on to round into form for the regular season opener Wednesday.

But the preseason was overall positive for the Magic. The team showed plenty of signs on both ends of the progress they are making. They look like a team that could be dangerous — or at least a hard out and difficult opponent.

But they are a team that still has a lot of work to do. They have to clean up their defense and find a way to execute in the half court. The Magic still have work to do. And there is still growth to go.

Next: Grades: Cleveland Cavaliers 113, Orlando Magic 106

Those fundamentals for the team — that core identity — began to form in the last two weeks. The question is how much translates and how much sticks once the games start counting.