Orlando Magic pass the first test of their resolve, more tests remain

The Orlando Magic faced tons of adversity in Washington, D.C. as Jonathan Isaac went down with a knee injury early in the game. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic faced tons of adversity in Washington, D.C. as Jonathan Isaac went down with a knee injury early in the game. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic faced the frustration of a poor performance and an early injury to put on a strong showing. Now they fight for consistency.

38. 101. 142. Final. 122

In the quiet locker room following the Orlando Magic’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Monday, a reporter asked Jonathan Isaac if this team loses sight of its identity. The 21-year-old forward, unsure of his answers elsewhere trying to explain how the team lost to the league’s worst team at home without its best player, spoke resolutely.

“Honestly, yes,” he said after that game.

You did not have to look much further than how the team played or the result. Things that should have been easy or learned for the Magic, they were still sorting through. The team got frustrated and the Hawks took advantage.

Wednesday’s game against the Washington Wizards was a test for the Orlando Magic. They had lost their way and suffered the consequences for it. There was no time to wait for players to get healthy or for things to lock into place. Their success was fully in their hands.

Coach Steve Clifford often says the NBA is about how you respond to adversity. The 82-game marathon is about navigating the ups and downs and playing with the same approach and poise.

How the Magic would respond to this loss would say a lot about them. It would say something about their focus and resolve. And ultimately about their aspirations for the season.

If the team had a New Year’s Resolution, it was to resemble the team that defeated the Philadelphia 76ers. The team that was precise with its rotations and moved the ball, playing under control and at their pace to find open shots and break open defenses.

The Magic had one more thing thrown in their way to bounce back from and fight through.

Jonathan Isaac, playing energetically with two points,  a rebound and a steal in the first two minutes of the game, would be gone for the game after he wrapped his leg around Bradley Beal and crumpled to the floor. Isaac stayed on the floor in pain for several moments before Magic trainers called for a stretcher to take him off the court.

The Magic officially called the injury a hyperextended knee. The team will confirm the diagnosis with a MRI when it returns to Orlando on Thursday. But Isaac seemed in good spirits and optimistic about his prognosis.

There was still a game to play. And the Magic were not going to let that get away from them. They had some adversity, and they had to show their resolve. The same kind of resolve that keyed their playoff run last year.

It took some time for the Magic to center themselves. Emotionally, it had to be tough to get themselves together.

But coming out of the locker room, the Magic dominated the Wizards. Orlando outscored Washington 60-43, including holding the offensive-minded Wizards to 18 fourth-quarter points.

Khem Birch was called to play power forward and get out on the perimeter to defend and he successfully held his own, coming down to crash the glass as well as he has all year.

The Magic were down two of their best defenders in Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, and they held one of the best offenses in the league to 98.1 points per 100 possessions for the entire game.

Orlando proved that focus and intense effort can make up at least partially for losing some individual talent on the floor. Except for a spat of fouling and free throws given up in the second quarter, the Magic were in the right spots to contest shot around the basket (36 points in the paint).

They largely kept the Wizards to one shot (a 21.4 percent offensive rebound rate, but just 16.7 percent in the second half). Washington, a team that likes to push the pace and score quickly, scored only 15 fast-break points.

The Magic played this game exactly how they wanted to play it.

They contested shots and got into passing lanes. They played the game at their pace, pushing it off turnovers and catching the Wizards sleeping, but still bringing it back and speeding through their offense to get good shots, making incisive cuts and drives through the lane.

This is what good teams are supposed to do. They have a bad performance and they respond with a more focused and intense effort.

They faced adversity in losing a key player early in the game and they banded together to focus their efforts and win the game convincingly. Clifford said after the game that the second half was perhaps the Magic’s best half of the season.

Everyone will note the opponent. The Wizards are one of the worst defensive teams in the league.

The Magic found it easy to get by their perimeter defenders and get into the paint. D.J. Augustin tore up his man and made a living getting whatever shot he wanted throughout the game.

Orlando took advantage of a bad team in the way it struggled to do so against Atlanta on Monday. The Magic stayed aggressive and assertive.

Mistakes never got them down and the defense always remained consistent to give the team breathing room and easy offensive pressure. Making shots sure helps too.

It is easy to do this for one game. And so the next challenge is ahead.

Doing it again and then doing it again every night after that. Making this kind of effort consistent — the standard as the team called its win over the 76ers from last week as an example — is the trick this team has struggled to pull this year.

Facing another test of their resolve now with the potential that Isaac will be out for a week or more will test this roster. The Magic seem hopeful Aaron Gordon will be ready to return for Friday’s game against the Miami Heat. But there is no guarantee of that.

The Magic have dealt with some serious injuries this year. They showed great resolve in going 5-6 without Nikola Vucevic earlier in the year. Evan Fournier stepped up to take on a bigger scoring role with Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac increasing their scoring output at the same time.

Being without Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, in addition to Al-Farouq Aminu and Michael Carter-Williams, certainly puts a lot of stress on the team to defend. Clifford was piecing together his rotation on the fly Wednesday, using 11 players by the end of the first quarter looking for something.

The Magic getting big bench performances from Terrence Ross and D.J. Augustin is usually a good formula for the Magic to win. They both stepped up to control the pace of the game and give the Magic a consistent outside threat.

Everyone will have to step up again no matter who plays Friday. The team will again need a focused effort. There should be no resting on their laurels.

But the Magic could clearly see what their potential is and how they can dominate weaker teams with their defense. The process of seeing that every night is ongoing.

That will be the next test of their resolve.

The Magic were disappointed with their effort Monday. They went out Wednesday to prove it was a fluke.

Doing so without a key player and the team still so drastically undermanned was a strong test of what this team is capable of.

Grades: Orlando Magic 122, Washington Wizards 101. dark. Next

The goal remains to find consistency. The resolve of one game is meaningless without the resolve to play this way every night.