Orlando Magic suddenly have the tools to get to the foul line

The Orlando Magic’s offense has been stuck in the mud for several years. A sudden ability to get to the foul line is giving the team an easy outlet.

The Orlando Magic’s offense was getting stuck again.

The team was struggling to keep pace with the San Antonio Spurs and stay in contact. The team’s offense would slow to a crawl on occasion and struggle to get the player and ball movement they need to find success. Things just were not moving downhill.

Some defensive stops would help to get the ball moving downhill quicker. And the team needed to force the ball more into the paint.

That is exactly why the team is starting Markelle Fultz. Put the ball in his hands and he can drive into the lane and keep defenders off-balance to find a hole to get the team moving again.

The one thing he is really strong at is drawing fouls, especially in transition. The Magic were hanging tough in the third quarter when Markelle Fultz started to get to work. He got downhill and drew contact, finishing at the rim. When he was not finishing he was dishing off, catching the defense out of position for easy baskets or trips to the line.

That kind of pressure changes things. It is a pressure the Magic are increasingly putting on teams.

Suddenly, Orlando is getting the foul line at a rate the team has not since Dwight Howard was in pinstripes. And for a team that has struggled to create offense, this little boost is helping the team discover its offensive identity.

“I think it’s a big emphasis for us,” Fultz said after practice Saturday. “We’ve got a long athletic team and there is no reason we shouldn’t be getting on the glass and getting easy ones — fouls, drives, pump faking and getting to the line. It’s huge. Seeing the ball go in one time can open everything. if you can get a free throw to get you going, I think it’s one of the best things you can do.”

The Orlando Magic made 27 of 34 free throws in the win over the Spurs on Friday. They hit on five alone during a 12-0 run that briefly gave the team the lead in the third quarter. The Magic made 8 of 11 foul shots in the fourth quarter. The Spurs did not take a free throw in the final quarter.

Foul shots have done a lot of work to keep the Magic in games this season.

The Orlando Magic also took 34 free throws in the win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday. The game marked the first time the Magic had 30 or more free throws in back-to-back games since March of 2012.

Orlando has had three games with 30 or more free throws already this year and six games with 25 or more free throw attempts. Last year, the team had four games with 30 or more free throw attempts total and 12 games with 25 or more free throws.

“I think we’re making the right play,” Aaron Gordon said after Wednesday’s win over the 76ers. “We’re being aggressive when we need to be aggressive and we’re getting fouled.”

Getting to the foul line has been a problem for the Magic ever since Howard left the team. The team has ranked no better than 21st (in 2018) in free throw rate and has not had a mark higher than 25.3 (2014) since the 2012 season.

That includes one of the worst free throw rate seasons in league history in 2013 (the first year without Howard) when the team had a 19.7 free throw rate and shot only 16.6 free throw attempts per game.

Through 12 games this year, the Magic have shot 21.9 free throw attempts (24th in the league) and have posted a 24.9 free throw rate (23rd in the league).

The Orlando Magic have averaged 26.7 free throw attempts per game in its last six games — with the noted outlier of six free-throw attempts against the Indiana Pacers in a game that featured the fewest combined free-throw attempts in league history.

This is all to say, the Magic have played their best offense of the season in the last six games and it has coincided with a noticeable uptick in the team’s ability to get to the line.

“I think when you are playing inside out and playing with good force, you are going to get to the line more,” coach Steve Clifford said after practice Thursday. “I think we’re playing a faster and transition is helping us that way. Playing with the attack and playing more inside out is going to help you.”

Fultz is a big part of that push for this team.

Included in that 12-0 stretch in the third quarter was a run from Fultz where he got to the basket and finished at the rim, putting more pressure on the defense and getting them out of position. He was able to draw fouls just from his drives to the rim. That energy kept the team in the game and is a critical part of Fultz’s early-season contributions to the team.

Fultz shot a less-than-stellar 3 for 8 from the floor in Friday’s game. But he hit on all seven of his free throws.

Fultz has made 22 of 27 free throws this season, a sign that his shooting from the outside can recover when he works on skill development in the offseason. The 2.3 free throw attempts per game from Fultz are fourth-most on the team behind usual offensive stalwarts Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic.

But undoubtedly, Fultz has put a lot more pressure on defenses.

According to Second Spectrum, Fultz is second on the team in drives per game with 9.2 drives per game. He shoots 51.8 percent on drives and scores 4.4 points per game on drives. He is undoubtedly one of the team’s best creators off the dribble.

Clifford said in Friday’s game, Fultz played his best this season. By the coach’s count, Fultz had 15 drives in the game. That pressure on the paint and on defenses opened things up for a lot of other players. Including getting them fouled.

Orlando wants Fultz getting downhill where he can either get to the line, finish at the rim or create for others. It is all designed to stress the defense and get them out of position in some way.

A recovering defense will be a fouling defense.

“Every time I break the free throw line and be aggressive and get there, I make a good play,” Fultz said after practice Saturday. “Whether it’s me scoring or me getting somebody an open shot. It’s definitely something I keep in mind when I’m attacking. Just putting pressure on the defense at all times, whether that’s dribbling through the lane, whether that’s getting a layup or whether that’s finding an open teammate. That’s a big strength of my game and I want to use it every night.”

Orlando is still getting its offense right. The team is still seeking the right combinations to attack.

That has led to plenty of ups and downs early in the season.

The one positive is it appears the Magic have found a way to get to the foul line. The statistics always show that free throws are the most efficient way to score. There is no better shot than a foul shot.

So long as the Magic remain aggressive and move the ball to get each other open, they should have the opportunity to get to the line.

With a new ball-handler able to get into and create in the paint, that pressure to get to the foul line should continue to ease up. Ultimately it will make everything easier for the offense.