The Orlando Magic are hoping to have a stronger bench with a little more scoring punch. That has shown through in flashes throughout the preseason.
There was a breath of fresh air when Terrence Ross checked in.
The Orlando Magic really have no other player like him. Terrence Ross’ ability to come off screens and shoot is among the best in the league. Teams really do have to gameplan for him and Ross can turn games on their head, helping the Magic steal wins in the process.
During the team’s first two preseason games, his absence was certainly felt. the bench lacked much scoring punch, having to rely on rookie Cole Anthony to generate offensive push. Not helping matters either was the general platoon swapping coach Steve Clifford was using for the preseason game.
So the moment Ross checked into Thursday’s 123-115 loss to the Charlotte Hornets and he started firing, it felt like things were right in the world.
Terrence Ross’ first shot came on an isolation against former teammate Bismack Biyombo. Ross saw the switch, rocked him to sleep and pulled up for three. This is Ross and the kind of impact he can have.
Last year for the Magic, he averaged 14.7 points per game while shooting a 50.8-percent effective field goal percentage. Both numbers were down from his 2019 numbers. At least part of that seemed to be the generally weaker second units he was playing with. Outside of playing with the starters — often replacing Jonathan Isaac for closing lineups — Terrence Ross was often the only scorer the team had coming off the bench.
And so Thursday’s game was important not just as a practice run and a return to the court under the Amway Center lights for Ross, but a chance to get used to a second unit that looks to have some more scoring potency.
If Cole Anthony is able to translate his preseason success to the regular season, suddenly the Orlando Magic’s second unit might be a bit more dangerous and give Steve Clifford more options to turn to when he has to break his lineup.
And the two already seem to be building solid chemistry.
"“We are all playing for each other out there,” Anthony said after Thursday’s game. “That second unit is really starting to mesh together. We’re finding where everyone is comfortable. Khem [Birch] likes to set screens, Chuma [Okeke] can score and he is also a good passer, Terrence [Ross] is a shooter, MCW can do everything. We’re all getting comfortable out there with each other. It’s fun. I think we have gotten better every time we have stepped on the court together.”"
The record looked pretty good in Thursday’s game. And this is without Mohamed Bamba, who rejoined the team at practice Wednesday after getting cleared for contact at last.
In Thursday’s game alone, Anthony scored 11 of his 13 points in the second quarter. That came in a stretch where the Magic took a 10-point deficit and reduced it to as little as three before Ross left the game midway through the second quarter — some late 3-pointers from the Hornets extended the lead back out to nine.
The injection of the second unit in the first half at least, gave the Magic’s offense some life after a listless start. Making baskets goes a long way.
But Anthony is right that every player in that group plays a role.
Birch scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds in his time on the floor. He has long been a solid screener and one of the best screen assist big men in the league. He had helped spring plenty of guys free.
Michael Carter-Williams has been something of an agent of chaos when he is on the floor. He is energetic defensively and he has found a good role cutting to the basket. But his shooting has left a lot to be desired this preseason — missing several wide-open threes as defenses increasingly ignore him.
Okeke’s offense is still a bit limited. He tried a post-up in Thursday’s game and was clearly still a bit of a fish out of water.
But as he regains confidence in himself and his ability on the floor, the moments and flashes of his talent are on display. Anthony fired a great pass to him in the corner where he pump-faked a closeout and sidestepped into a three.
Okeke’s 3-point shooting has been impressive so far. And while he needs a lot of work and confidence in the other areas of his game, that shooting could very well help him see the floor early.
And everyone associated with the Magic are buzzing about his reads on two assists that set up Birch and Ross for dunks.
So far, the Magic like what they have seen from this second unit.
"“I felt like we could spread the defense a lot being that all of us can penetrate and kick out and all of us can shoot the ball real good,” Okeke said after Thursday’s game. “We all have to trust in each other. We all believe if we don’t make this shot, we’ll make the next shot. That confidence in each other will go a long way.”"
Setting the lineup
The unit the Orlando Magic have used as their second unit in the preseason is not likely to be the same group they use when the games start to count though.
Steve Clifford has said throughout the preseason he believes this team is deeper than previous versions of the team. Only time will tell if that is the case.
But the bench last year was something of a weakness.
According to stats from HoopsStats, the Magic finished 18th in the league in bench in efficiency recap difference — the site’s measure for efficiency. The Magic were 12th in the league in bench points per game at 38.2 points per game.
The Magic’s bench in 2019 was similarly 18th in the league with similar scoring and efficiency measures — scoring 35.7 points per game.
That might be fine if the Magic’s starting group was a bit better and had a bit more scoring punch. The team again is hoping that adding some new blood to the bench unit, plus the growth from Bamba, will give the group a boost.
Orlando’s margins for error are so small that any boost the team can get from the bench or the potential to replace the production when a key player has an off night can make the difference for the team.
The Magic were strong in 2019 because they were able to build momentum early in the fourth quarter. They led the league that year in fourth-quarter comebacks (wins after trailing to start the fourth quarter) that year. That was a product of Terrence Ross’ career year but also a rotation and bench that maximized those minutes and gave the team a strong standing to finish games.
Ross certainly can still have that effect. His shooting just changes everything.
"“To be able to play with a dude who can shoot like that makes everyone’s life easier,” Cole Anthony said after Thursday’s game. “Having people who can shoot is awesome. That’s not just one dude who can shoot, it’s one of the best shooters in the league. I’m happy he’s starting to feel better. I’m comfortable playing with him and I look forward to playing with him more.”"
That group needs scoring stability unless Anthony becomes a consistent and reliable scorer, shooter and creator. That is a big ask for a rookie, even one as talented as Anthony.
As optimistic as the Magic are about Anthony, Ross said he was impressed with how smart he was on the floor and is encouraging the young guard never to apologize for taking a shot, Anthony will even admit he is still figuring out where he fits in.
Clifford has run essentially a 10-man rotation during the preseason. And he might keep it for early in the season — he says he prefers a nine-man rotation to make sure every player has the chance to get into a rhythm. But it is fairly safe to assume there will be some mixing and matching of groups — starters interspersed with the second unit.
The public likely has not seen the rotation and the way Clifford is going to run his team when the games count. There might be minutes when there are no starters on the floor, but those are likely to be limited.
So far the Magic should feel good about their bench. It has had some strong moments. But its youth and unfamiliarity have also shown through. The team is still going to be piecing together rotations and playing groups at the start of the season.
To be successful, though, the Magic will need this group to play well together.