Orlando Magic see their potential, but still need consistency

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 20: Jonathan Isaac #1 of the Orlando Magic tries to knock the ball away from Dario Saric #9 of the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on October 20, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 20: Jonathan Isaac #1 of the Orlando Magic tries to knock the ball away from Dario Saric #9 of the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on October 20, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic see their potential on defense. But inconsistency still follows them as they try to learn to prepare and keep up their intensity.

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford said before the season began that he was eager to see how the team stacked up in its early set of games. That stretch was not going to be easy — Orlando played five 2018 Playoff teams in their first six games and the other held an 11-game win streak over the franchise.

This was a barometer of where the team was as the season got started and the work the team needed to get done.

Through five games, the Magic can say they have learned a few things about themselves for sure. Clifford, in assessing his team’s start at 2-3, said the Magic had put together two really good defensive games. But the other three just were not good enough.

The thing Clifford and the Magic have learned is exactly the formula they need to have success. Now comes the hard part — finding consistency. A task the players know they much find.

"“When we have been moving the ball and really focused on defense, we have been able to bury teams and play really well,” Jonathan Isaac said. “When we don’t and we’re not moving the ball as well and the ball is sticking, and we’re not as focused on our preparation and our execution defensively, we struggle.”"

Thursday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers was a perfect example of this.

After turning in the best defensive performance of the season in a 93-90 win over the Boston Celtics on Monday, the Orlando Magic returned home and laid the equivalent of a defensive egg. The tape did not lie and Clifford said the team looked a step slow on that end.

The stats tell a pretty good story too. Damian Lillard scored 34 of his 41 points in the second half to keep Portland at arm’s length. The Blazers shot 55.2 percent from the floor and posted a 132.0 offensive rating. The bench players — specifically Zach Collins, Evan Turner and Seth Curry — scored 40 points and shot 18 for 27 from the floor (66.7 percent).

It was disappointing, to say the least. It was a defensive breakdown on every level with the team failing in one-on-one situations and in the team scheme.

Overall, the Magic have not looked impressive defensively. The team is giving up 111.7 points per 100 possessions, good for 21st in the league. That is certainly not good enough. But it is still early in the season and those numbers can change drastically — Thursday’s loss rose that number by nearly three points per 100 possessions.

Undoubtedly, the Magic have room to improve.

Jonathan Isaac said Steve Clifford spent practice Friday focusing on the team’s preparation when it came to defense. The team certainly seemed to lack the aggression and understanding of their gameplan in the loss Thursday.

And right now the team’s defensive prowess remains potential.

"“I think we have a lot of potential,” Aaron Gordon said. “We have the capability to be really good. it’s just a matter of whether we’re going to do it or not. Each game we have to come out and hold ourselves to a standard and play the way we know we are capable of playing.”"

The goal here is to make sure the team is locked in on its coverages. But lacking intensity in the midst of the game certainly knocks the defense down a peg. And the team has to remain focused an energetic throughout to have a chance.

That much has been made clear through the first five games. Orlando, when it is locked in, is a strong defensive team. But that focus is not always there. And it is probably the most important thing for this group.

Clifford said one of the things he knows is that the Magic will not be a top five offensive team — so far this season, they are 27th in the league at this early stage in the season — and so the team has to make its way defensively.

That part has been as inconsistent as anything else to this point in the year. But when it is on, the Magic are a solid team.

"“I think this first group of games you learn when we do this we play well,” Clifford said. “I think we’re capable of being really good defensively. When the ball is moving and moving freely and the pace of our offense is quick and we get the ball in the paint, we’re good on offense. And that would be most teams. But those are the characteristics so far.”"

The Magic have shown some good things on both ends and shown their formula to success. But the team has to duplicate it every night.

That is the next step in the team’s maturity and growth. It is still early in the season, so no one expects things to be perfect. The Magic are still learning how to play together and play under their new coach.

But the seeming lapses in focus and intensity are a bit concerning even at this early stage in the season.

The focus for the team is to shore up its defense first and foremost. That is the current that will underpin the team’s success or failure this season in Clifford’s estimation.

Clifford said he is confident the team will sort things out.

"“I think one of the assets of the team is we should be a smart team,” Clifford said. “I think we are a smart team. But smarts are only going to come out if you have the right concentration and the right intensity. Like every other team, we have to find that every night focus. Sometimes that takes a lot to do.”"

This is a young team. And a young team with limited winning experience, at that. There are still habits to form and a foundation to lay down as the team understands what it takes to win and win consistently.

Learning how to prepare properly and play with the proper energy is as much a part of learning to win as anything else the Magic are encountering this season.

That growth may remain an ongoing process for the Magic. The team still has a lot to work on and improve over the course of the next 77 games. No one seems to shy away from that prospect.

Orlando Magic bench unit's goal is to bring energy. dark. Next

It is clear the Magic can perform at a high level. Now the team just has to find that high level every night.