Orlando Magic got their swagger back and a reminder of their identity

The Orlando Magic got a rousing come-from-behind performance from Terrence Ross for a game that re-established their swagger. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic got a rousing come-from-behind performance from Terrence Ross for a game that re-established their swagger. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic lazed through the first half of an important game against the Brooklyn Nets. Then they woke up and played like last year’s inspiring run.

147. Final. 115. 38. 113

In the midst of their playoff run last year, the Orlando Magic felt unbeatable.

It did not matter who was in the building or who they were facing, they believed they had every chance to win and no fear about how they would attack. Their 22-9 run to the playoffs was a gaining avalanche of confidence that left no team spared in their wake. They beat the Golden State Warriors, the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors during that run.

The team was capable of beating anybody. They not only believed it, they knew it. And they knew it while playing with a ton of urgency to make up lost ground to get into the playoffs.

This year, there has been no urgency. The team has sat in playoff position for most of the season and there was a sort of institutional knowledge of how to get through the season and into the playoffs. The Eastern Conference was doing little to put pressure on them anyhow.

This year, there was no chip on their shoulder. The Magic established themselves as a playoff team and the expectations were raised around the building. Orlando might have wanted to be more, but the team has at least kept its spot from last year — with all of its limitations.

This year, the team had familiarity (even with injuries). The team seemingly knew where everyone would be and the whole system. But instead of leading to a boost, it led to stagnation. The team just felt flat and stale. The group never came together in the same way as it did last year.

This year has not been the same as last year despite all that familiarity. The Magic did not have the same focus and the same intensity as before.

Manufacturing it with playoff experience and as the leaders in the chase have proven extremely difficult.

Enough was enough.

Another lackluster effort in the first half of a game that should have had playoff focus if not playoff intensity. The Orlando Magic are chasing the Brooklyn Nets for seventh. That is a goal for them to push and achieve. It is something for them to aspire to.

This should have been an easy chance for the team to snap to attention.

They did not. Their shots continued to go no good, even the open ones. They struggled to create any flow or find their pace. Players struggled as they tried to force the team back to attention.

Things were even worse defensively. Players got through screens with a straight shot at Nikola Vucevic as a rim protector. And he was still a step late.

Orlando was in its deepest hole in the third quarter of Monday’s game against Brooklyn. A 19-point deficit made worse because it came after Joe Harris stole an offensive rebound off a missed free throw, dribbled out to the 3-point line and drained a 3-pointer while Nikola Vucevic stood and watched.

That was apparently enough.

Vucevic, left on that island, spoke sternly to his teammates during a timeout. It was time to stop saying the right things and understanding the right things. It was time to do them. It had to start with him and he delivered with 12 points the rest of the quarter to set the stage.

Suddenly, the Magic were awake. That unmistakable swagger from last year returned. The team had something to play for and something to prove again.

All the same beats were present.

Vucevic deftly using the threat of his outside shot to get inside the lane or free up others for passes. Terrence Ross acting like a flamethrower, making difficult shots that lifted the entire team’s energy up with him. Michael Carter-Williams hounding and harassing opponents until he reached exhaustion. Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier filling in gaps and taking turns beating a retreating defense.

The team’s defense swarmed and made each pass difficult. The team rotated to cover for each other and challenged every shot. In one possession, three Magic players were on the floor to dig out a loose ball.

This is how the Magic were always supposed to play. They were supposed to be scrappy and tough. Every basket was supposed to be difficult. Their offense was supposed to flow from that defense with the ball moving inside and out to get open shots.

The staple of any Steve Clifford team: They were supposed to be difficult to play again.

The year has not played out like this at all. At times, it feels like the Magic are simply going through the motions. Clifford has described the team as able to execute its plays, but unable to make the plays that ultimately crack the defense.

The Eastern Conference has allowed the Magic to bide their time like this. It has not put the pressure on this team.

The Magic probably should not be in playoff position with how they have played this season. Despite ranking seventh in the league in defensive rating, Clifford has never quite been satisfied with the team’s defensive intensity. Even watching them, they do not seem to have the same defensive attention to detail.

In the last month, the Magic have played as a middling defensive team. So instead of holding steady and climbing the standings, the Magic have played like one of the worst teams in the league.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The team might show flashes of its potential or feast on the worst teams. But it was abundantly clear how off things were with this group. It was something that went beyond injuries.

They no longer had the swagger and aggressiveness to beat the teams that really matter — 4-25 against teams with winning records this year.

As the season has wound down, the Magic have settled into their place. They have struggled to find the spark and to play aggressively and confidently.

Contentment is probably the wrong word to describe the Magic’s approach to this season. But it is certainly the feeling of watching this team at times. Something had to light a spark.

The Magic needed a win like this. They used a stirring comeback win over the Memphis Grizzlies last year to spark a run and get that finishing kick to make the playoffs. Back then, they still needed games to play catch-up.

After the game — both to the media and in the locker room — Clifford reminded his team that every group has big wins. Getting a nice win in the NBA is a regular occurrence throughout the league.

This can either be the start of something or just a momentary blip on the radar.

The Magic got their swagger back again. They played with that belief they could beat anybody and took it to their opponent.

This is the attitude it will take the rest of the season for the team to achieve its goal and climb into seventh and maybe even get back to .500 to end the season. It will take that kind of focused, urgent and aggressive play.

At their core, this is who the Magic are. They are an imperfect team that makes up that gap through effort and sometimes sheer will. They make up that gap through grit.

Next. Grades: Orlando Magic 115, Brooklyn Nets 113. dark

Orlando found that for the second half in Brooklyn. Unlocking that for the rest of the season will be the biggest thing for this team and its goals.