Orlando Magic are long past due to realize this potential

The Orlando Magic had a different script against James Harden in a strong defensive showing. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic had a different script against James Harden in a strong defensive showing. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic’s struggles against playoff teams this year are well documented. Sunday’s game showed what a focused and attentive team can do, at last.

38. 106. 169. Final. 126

The Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets are far different teams than they were in December when the Rockets made the trip to the Amway Center. Yet, the threat the Rockets posed to break down the Magic’s defense remained.

James Harden was masterful that evening. Orlando put its best perimeter defender in Aaron Gordon on James Harden and it did absolutely nothing. This was back when the Magic’s defense was pretty vaunted and ranked near the top of the league. Before the Jonathan Isaac injury and the inconsistency that has plagued it especially in recent weeks.

Aaron Gordon tried every trick in his book. The Magic decided they were not going to let him get to the line and give him his 3-pointers. He made them pay scoring 54 points on 10-for-15 shooting from deep. He added seven assists for good measure.

Russell Westbrook took his turn too, destroying the Magic in transition when they went through their inevitable scoring lulls. The Rockets won the game easily 130-107. It is still the worst defensive game (by points allowed per 100 possessions) the Magic have played this year.

The game highlighted so many things about this team that would play out throughout the rest of the season to this point. Their lack of a star player kept their margin for error incredibly small and susceptible to individual brilliance. And their vaunted defense could be broken.

Orlando did not anticipate then they would not be able to get the marquee wins that would help a team climb in the playoff rankings. The Magic’s record against quality opponents this season has been a sticking point.

The team has not been able to put all the pieces together against opponents that matter. Coach Steve Clifford has had an eye on the postseason all year, as every player seemingly has, and noted even after some wins that they were not playing to a playoff standard. Not in a way that would help them get wins when the pressure was ramped up.

The team has not been able to put all the pieces together. And those cracks show most against the good teams in this league.

Last year, it felt like the Magic could beat anybody. It was the wins over the Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers that made everyone believe a run to the playoffs was possible. These wins made everything possible.

This whole season has been waiting for the team to show its potential against the best. That is why the win over the Los Angeles Lakers in January was so exhilarating. Why those other wins against the Philadelphia 76ers (twice) and Miami Heat seemed so special.

They were reminders of just how good this team could be. But they were all momentary glimpses that did not stay captured.

Every team and every season is different. Comparing this year’s team to last year’s team was always folly, even if the comparison was pretty direct. This season has been frustrating.

But the reminders are all still there. And Sunday’s 126-106 win over those same Rockets was a reminder of just how good this team can be when they are locked in, executing and making shots.

Outside of that rousing win over the Lakers, this might have been the most complete and dominant performance the Magic have had over a quality team. It will certainly go among the best wins of the season.

Every piece seemed to go together. The Magic looked like the playoff team they know they can be.

Defensively, facing a team playing without a center, the Magic showed discipline in their closeouts and scrambled and worked together to cover for each other. Orlando switched effectively and always had someone on the ball. They picked up deflections and challenged shots at the rim, securing the rebound and dominating the glass.

Offensively, the Magic turned mistakes into transition opportunities, racing to the other end and picking up the pace to beat the Rockets down near the basket. Orlando knew it had a post advantage but it did not stop its offense to get the ball to Nikola Vucevic.

Knowing the Rockets would switch much of its offense, the Magic waited to get the matchups it wanted before dumping it inside. But then they kept moving, allowing the ball to get back to the outside to attack the paint again.

And with Houston playing so small, Orlando attacked the offensive glass and dominated there too.

Everything for the Magic worked.

On both ends, they were aggressive and confident in their gameplan. The Magic executed everything to perfection. It was a reminder of how good they can play and how they can beat everyone.

This season has been difficult on that front for sure. The Magic are just 6-26 in games against opponents with records better than .500 — two wins over the Philadelphia 76ers, January wins over the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers, a November win over the Memphis Grizzlies and now the win over the Houston Rockets.

The team’s lack of consistency on both ends has prevented the team from getting wins against the teams that matter. To win in the playoffs, the Magic have to beat these teams.

It is too early to say whether the Magic have turned some corner. Orlando has now won seven of its last 11 games. The win over the Rockets was the most impressive win in that stretch. The team is shaping up its focus a bit after an embarrassing home performance last week against the Portland Trail Blazers and a frustrating road loss against the Miami Heat.

But it is still not clear or certain that Orlando has put all of its pieces together. Offensively, Orlando is playing significantly better for sure. The defense is still rounding itself into form. All the while, Orlando has banked up wins against teams with losing records as they have all year.

The Rockets presented a unique challenge. Nobody plays as they do right now without a center. It takes a specific gameplan and focus to defeat them. But everything is translatable.

If Orlando plays with this much attention to detail, focus and intensity, they can be like last year and be capable of beating anyone. Right now is the time to build some confidence heading into the playoffs.

It is long past time for the Magic to put themselves together and prove themselves against quality opponents. It is long past time for the Magic to look like a playoff team with all the focus and intensity that comes with it.

Next. Grades: Orlando Magic 126, Houston Rockets 106. dark

Sunday was a good start.