Five things to watch during the Orlando Magic’s first scrimmage vs. LA Clippers

The Orlando Magic finally return to the court as they take on the LA Clippers on Wednesday. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic finally return to the court as they take on the LA Clippers on Wednesday. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic will return to the floor and play an actual basketball game again as they take on the LA Clippers on Wednesday. It won’t be a normal game.

The big day is finally here. For the first time since leaving the floor in Memphis after a successful 3-1 road trip, the Orlando Magic will take the floor and play a basketball game.

This one will not have the stakes that game had. It will not count toward the regular-season standings. And things feel very different.

A whole year’s worth of things have happened since then — from the rise, fall and rise again of the coronavirus in the United States to the massive and continuing protests against racial injustice that have taken place and are still taking place throughout the country.

The ground upon which the league and the world stands upon has changed dramatically. Everyone wants to make sure basketball is in its proper place. It is a form of entertainment.

With the whole league inside the Disney campus, both the pandemic and the important social justice movement are front of mind. They will be plastered on the courts the teams will play on.

The reminders of the outside world will be ever-present. But everyone seems eager to get playing again. Everyone seems eager to see basketball return in this major way.

The last mystery of the league’s return will get some answers beginning Wednesday. They will finally see live, competitive basketball for the first time in four months.

The concern throughout Magic camp — and surely elsewhere within the campus setting — is what level of fitness players will be in and just how ready they are to play competitive games again. Coach Steve Clifford has warned that players are going to need time to get themselves into shape and they are nowhere near where they would be a regular training camp in October.

That is to say, Wednesday’s first scrimmage between the Orlando Magic and the LA Clippers could be rough.

The league has already shortened the first scrimmage to a 40-minute game recognizing the monumental challenge of having players ready to play a full NBA game after four months without being able to play even pick-up games.

Evan Fournier estimated Sunday that he could probably play a quarter of regular-season-level basketball. But not a whole lot more. He averages 31.7 minutes per game, nearly three times that.

Clifford said he would spend Monday’s day off discussing with high-performance director David Tenney and the team’s medical and performance staff just how many minutes he should play everyone in Wednesday’s opener and Saturday’s second scrimmage against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Teams are still managing their players and how quickly they can come back and be ready to play for when the games count.

Nobody knows what Wednesday’s game will look like. But it will give teams at least a sense of where they are and whether they need to pick up the pace or change their tact with a week to go before games begin.

Everyone will have a lot more information and a lot better sense of things after Wednesday’s game.

Fans will all be excited to see a basketball game again. But it is important to remember what this game is and what this game is not. It is going to be important to keep these five things in mind as we play this first scrimmage especially.

1. The score will not matter

Everyone got really excited at the growth prospect of playing the LA Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers in these scrimmages. It is a chance for the Orlando Magic to test themselves against the best teams in the Western Conference.

Wins would surely be fuel for confidence. And even playing well in defeat could provide some measure of confidence or sense the team is playing at a really high level.

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Put some of those notions to rest. The score of these games — particularly Wednesday’s game — is not important.

In fact, it probably is not even important if the starters defeat the Clippers’ starters. At this point, it is not clear how much anyone will play or even who will play — Steve Clifford has held players out of various parts of practice as a way to manage everyone’s return to play.

This first scrimmage especially is probably more a continuation of the team’s practices. It is about getting out and running up and down the floor and seeing if they can execute in a basic way. It is not about winning or losing. Not yet.

2. Aggressive Turnovers are OK

The one thing everyone is expecting through the first scrimmage at the very least is a lot of turnovers. The four-month layoff has disrupted habits and execution as much as anything. Nobody is expecting players on any team to be particularly sharp.

Preseason games — especially early preseason games — usually feature a lot of turnovers. Oddly, the Orlando Magic did not turn the ball over a lot in their early preseason games so maybe the chance to work on their foundations in camp will enable them to keep their mistakes to a minimum again.

But what will matter more are intentions. Players will make mistakes. They will be out of sync. And so there will be moments where they simply miss each other.

Those kinds of mistakes are going to be OK. The turnovers that will not be OK are sloppy turnovers where they are just throwing the ball around or trying to make plays where they are not there. Turnovers where they just lose the ball or give up the ball are no OK either.

What are OK are aggressive turnovers. Plays where the team is trying to push the ball up the court and get out in transition or they are making plays that are pushing the team toward the basket.

What matters is that the team is doing the right things. If they turn the ball over trying to attack the basket within the course of the offense or make a pass and a player simply was not there on time. Those turnovers are OK.

Aggressive turnovers where players are trying to make positive plays are turnovers that coaches can correct. They will be about timing and rhythm.

That is something teams are continually working on as they try to get back.

3. Minutes will be scarce for starters

Already the NBA has shortened the game to 40 minutes. This will not be a full NBA game.

Los Angeles Clippers
Los Angeles Clippers /

Los Angeles Clippers

The fact the league has shortened games shows they are as concerned as the coaches have stated about player health and making sure players are not rushing back to the court. There are still a lot of concerns about ramping up too quickly even after a few weeks of practice.

Coach Steve Clifford said he anticipates he will have to expand his nine-man rotation when the games count again. Some of that is because the team will be playing eight games in 15 days. That is a tiring run on top of everything else.

This first game is going to be dipping toes in the water then. It is hard to imagine the starters playing much more than that one quarter of 12 minutes (if not fewer) through the course of the game. This is merely a small check-up not a true practice run for the rest of the season.

Coaches will want to see their starters get up and down the court and execute on a basic level. They are not likely to push their players too far at this point.

This is just an opportunity to test themselves against someone who does not know exactly what is coming and to get a sweat in while getting the competitive juices flowing. There is a lot more work to do and more work they can do in practice before worrying about really preparing for the seeding round.

4. Who is in rhythm?

Having said all that, this is still a progress check.

The result and score may not matter. They may expect a lot of mistakes and turnovers as players get back their chemistry. And they may not play their starters a lot.

But this will be a chance to see who is really in rhythm. Especially for players deeper into the bench — like Wesley Iwundu, Gary Clark and even Vic Law and B.J. Johnson — the Magic can get a sense of whether they will be able to rely on them to contribute at some level.

Everyone is going to have a part to play.

A lack of rhythm or missing even open shots should not be a cause for major concern quite yet. One game does not make a pattern.

But figuring out which players already have their legs under them is going to be key to creating rotations and figuring out which players they can lean on earlier.

Really progress at this point will be about who is able to hit shots from the outside consistently and who looks like they are in good shape. The players that are making their shots at this point are the ones who will be ahead of the game.

5. Play hard, build good habits

The biggest thing everyone wants to see is whether the Orlando Magic have added any wrinkles to either their offense or defense.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The team found its offensive mojo after the All-Star Break and a big reason why was because of how they were able to push the pace. Their defense struggled and coach Steve Clifford said he hoped a few tweaks he has installed and a training camp can get that back.

Do not expect to see a lot of those changes implemented in the first scrimmage. This game is more about going out and playing. It is about establishing the framework of what the Magic want to accomplish in these games.

So the most important thing in this game is the thing players can control. The things that players have to be able to count on even if shots are not falling.

The team’s effort and intensity have to be good for whatever minutes they are at there. You want to see players putting their all into their short time and playing with intensity and focus as if this game did count. There cannot be sloppy turnovers or plays where they simply give up in transition.

Clifford said rebounding and transition defense have been a concern in practices. Those are more habit-based than anything else. And so this game should be about establishing and reinforcing good habits.

That starts with effort more than anything. That is something that should be a given regardless.

Nobody knows how this game is going to go or what the result will be. It is going to be a unique game.

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And the most important thing, above all else, do not read too much into it.