Orlando Magic finally feel like the team everyone expected

The Orlando Magic are a different team from last year. After a pair of big fourth-quarter wins, they are starting to feel similar to that magical team.

San Antonio Spurs
Orlando Magic

Aaron Gordon sat in his locker after Wednesday’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers and said this year’s team is not last year’s team. It is a new year with new players, even with much of the same roster.

Coach Steve Clifford would tell the media the same thing if they tried to compare this year’s team to last year’s team. Every group is different. And every season provides a different challenge.

Last year only provided a baseline from which to grow. The expectation is this year’s team will have to build upon that. But they would still have to start from scratch at the beginning of the season.

The comparison though is impossible not to draw. These are the same players. It was only a few months ago this group had the Amway Center rocking and the belief that every game was theirs to win.

The team will have to play differently. Players have improved, roles have shifted and rotations have changed. But the heart of what made last year’s group special could not change.

Through the first 10 or so games, it was hard to say this was the same team. The confidence and fight were not the same. The results were certainly not the same. And the team was searching and fighting for every inch it could get.

The team does not have to be the same as it was last year. But it needs all the same characteristics that made last year’s team great.

After wins against the Philadelphia 76ers and San Antonio Spurs, the Orlando Magic seemed to have that energy again. That never-quit attitude and execution to pull games out in the fourth quarter. A resolve and desperation to scratch out wins. The kind of qualities all winning teams need at some point.

As the Amway Center started rocking to the Magic’s first “clutch” win of the season and celebrated the team’s first win streak, it just all felt so familiar. It just felt like last year was there again.

There was Evan Fournier hitting a difficult 3-pointer as the clock wound down, making big shots over and over again. There was Terrence Ross catching fire at just the right moment — 10 points in the fourth quarter as he came around screens and buried jumpers against tough defense. There was even Nikola Vucevic gobbling up every rebound. Or even defensive players making stops and coming up with the exact play they needed when they needed it.

That team last year played with urgency and energy that came from a team desperate to make the playoffs. All the pieces clicked together suddenly and they rode that all the way in.

They won games with intense defense and an offense played at a faster pace. There were the heart and hustle plays that reminded everyone of the other spunky, never-say-die team from 2000.

But it also came with some legendary performances.

Terrence Ross became an instant fan favorite for his penchant for changing the temperature of games, especially in the fourth quarter. He put together some inspiring fourth-quarter shooting performances that seemed to lift everyone up.

The team made its name on a lot of grit and determination.

This year, Orlando has come out of the gates slowly. The team lost the rhythm that helped propel it to the playoffs last season. The urgency was lower at the start of the season. Some injuries had derailed the growth the team expected. Everyone was still feeling each other out.

It took a while for the team to rediscover that rhythm. But Friday felt like that same spark was finally back.

The Magic stayed true to the grind and competed for the entire game even without their best efforts on offense or defense. The team fell behind by 16 points but never quit fighting. They kept scratching and clawing.

It took Ross catching fire in the fourth quarter to begin sparking the offense some. The team got a solid and disciplined defensive response throughout the second half and especially in the fourth quarter.

It was not the Magic’s best defensive effort. But again in the fourth quarter, the team stepped up when it had to.

This was a team without fear and with supreme confidence. A team that was going to scratch and claw until the job was done. They would step up in the fourth quarter even with the struggles throughout the game. Orlando played best when it counted.

They came all the way back in the third quarter and gave up the lead. They fell behind by seven points with four minutes left.

The team barely budged an inch. It was not daunted by the deficit. That has been a characteristic of the team throughout the year. Even without their best effort throughout the game, they sort of just hung around. Waiting for that time to strike.

It came quickly. Down by seven, the Magic burned off seven straight points on a Terrence Ross jumper, an Evan Fournier 3-pointer and then a D.J. Augustin floater. The team started putting pressure on the paint and kicked it out for the best shot time and time again.

Defensively, Michael Carter-Williams put on a massive block of DeMar DeRozan. And the team scrambled and closed out, forcing the Spurs out of their passing rhythm. San Antonio missed some open shots knowing that Orlando’s defense was ready to swarm.

The team faced a deficit and fans may have fretted, but it was far from over. And the team did not really change its approach or its demeanor. The Magic just played their game and eventually wore down and overtook the Spurs.

The Magic were always in control of themselves. They just needed the shots to go down.

This year’s team is not last year’s team, of course. There are some major differences.

Markelle Fultz is proving to be a huge energy boost to an offense that is not always humming along. He pushes the pace and is able to get the team out in transition. Markelle Fultz’s ability to get into the paint and to the foul line was what really changed the team’s energy in this game.

Orlando had lost some of its swagger early in the season. The team was still finding its way and figuring out what it had and how to employ it.

Clifford is still going through his rotations to look for the right combinations of players. When Jonathan Isaac returns, he will have a difficult time figuring out where to put Al-Farouq Aminu, whose solid defense and rebounding helped bolster the starting group without Jonathan Isaac.

But the Magic are slowly starting to resemble that <ahem> magical run from last year. The results are following as they have increased their energy and found comfort again on the court — easier to do at home.

Orlando is looking like the team everyone expected once again.