The Orlando Magic have looked like the defensive team they envisioned the last two games. But that foundation is still very fragile and can crumble quickly.
From the beginning of training camp, Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has repeated the same belief about his team. They are better than they were last year. They can accomplish much more than they accomplished last year.
The Magic certainly have not looked that way so far this year.
The team might have more poise and might be able to lock into defeat some bad teams, but something has always felt a bit off this year.
The defense is not nearly as strong as it was last year or as strong as it needs to be for this team to be successful. That has exposed the team’s poor offense and inconsistent ways to create offense.
The Magic were still looking for their way and looking for the urgency and attention to detail to play at that level. Maybe a 1-3 road trip woke the team up from that slumber. Maybe Orlando is starting to show signs of the kind of team it can be.
The early part of this season has been trying to re-establish identity and re-establish the formula that made the team successful. The team was banking on that formula.
The Philadelphia 76ers saw who that Orlando Magic team was for about 46 minutes. The Magic doubled Joel Embiid hard in the post and at different times, forcing him to guess when the pressure was coming and from where that pressure was coming.
The Philadelphia 76ers may not have been playing at the same level they did against the Milwaukee Bucks, but it still took a focused and determined defensive effort to knock them off their game.
This is how Orlando has to play. This is the foundation they want to build. Quick rotations, devastating length and precise closeouts. The Magic know they can be one of the best defensive teams in the league. And that will enable them to beat anybody.
They should also know how fragile the whole project can be. How slipping up or losing that focus in one area can cause the whole thing to topple. How the foundation they want to build is still under construction.
Even in the final two minutes of a game.
In the 76ers’ five-3-pointer barrage, the Magic looked shaky again. Their free throws all seemed like they did not want to go down. Defensively, Orlando was late coming around screens. Orlando gave up several offensive rebounds.
The discipline it takes for this team to be elite defensively was present for all but those final two minutes. And those final two minutes nearly undid one of the Magic’s best defensive efforts.
Orlando is a team in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack. To beat the teams with title aspirations, it takes building off a strong foundation. The good teams are able to take away and frustrate a team’s first and second options. It is these games where teams have to scratch out a way. It is here where the team has to rely on what it does best and find a way even without their best game.
The Magic certainly played one of their better games of the season against Philadelphia on Friday. The team recorded back-to-back games giving up fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions since late October — essentially the start of the season.
It is a hard task to do anyway in this league where the offense is at a premium and games can come down to some of the randomness of 3-point shooting — a small reason not to be too concerned over the Magic’s closing kick.
Orlando was as on point defensively as it has been all season. The team looked to double and trap Embiid, bringing players from different angles and using their length to put him on his back foot. He was a decisionmaker and, more importantly, unable to post up where he is deadly efficient. That put him on the perimeter, the first key to beating the 76ers.
Orlando worked to trap the corners too. But that only works if the team is sharp in its rotations and its closeouts.
Even just a week ago on the Magic’s West Coast trip, the team was struggling with these rotations. They would sink into the paint or try to dig in without intensity and expose their backline.
Orlando played significantly better defense in the wins against the Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers.
That is the foundation the team wants to build. To be successful, they need a stifling defense. And that is the foundation that has been so inconsistent this season.
For two games — and 46 minutes of the last one — that consistency was there. The intensity and physicality were there. The foundation was there for the team. And that was how the magic could win even if the offense was not humming.
Of course, there is still that little bit. If Zach LaVine had caught fire late or the Magic had missed another free throw, things would be very different. The team’s foundation is still fairly fragile.
Orlando is still building itself back up. It is still trying to remind itself how it needs to play.
The pieces are all there and appear to be lining themselves back up. But they can still get broken and still can get in trouble if the Magic are not completely dialed in.