Orlando Magic saw growth, concern and hope in preseason

Markelle Fultz and the Orlando Magic finished their preseason with a strong showing. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Markelle Fultz and the Orlando Magic finished their preseason with a strong showing. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic wrapped up their preseason with an impressive showing that bodes well for the season as they assess these last two weeks of games.

38. Final. 117. 170. 120

The Orlando Magic will finish their preseason with a 2-2 record. A record that is very much bookended by strong performances and stuck with lackluster and lackadaisical performances in the middle.

It ran the whole gamut.

Throughout the course of the preseason, there was always going to be some allowance for a team to knock off some rust. The offseason and training camp were cut short — in addition to restrictions to try to keep players safe from the spread of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Teams always need some time to ramp up.

But when the games count, they count. And everyone has to be ready.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Coach Steve Clifford’s approach was to roll the balls out and let players play, giving them some sense of organization. And so success in the preseason was going to come down to intangibles. The team’s effort and willingness to get into the muck.

The good would only come in spurts as the team worked to come together. That is always how it is in the preseason.

If there was any sense of panic or concern that could come from a preseason game, it came from the team’s struggles to stay committed defensively or tied together. The Magic just did not look like the team they know they must be to compete for a playoff spot in a more competitive Eastern Conference.

The Magic felt like they had a long way to go.

Take Saturday’s 120-117 win over the Charlotte Hornets as a bit of a sigh of relief then.

Those middle two games felt supremely like preseason games. The team was putting in a lax effort — one that drew coach Clifford’s ire after a loss to the Atlanta Hawks last Sunday and another on Thursday that was at least partially excused by the two hard days of practice that preceded it.

An extra gear

It felt like the Orlando Magic had an extra gear that they were either going to hit or not. And it felt like from the opening tip in this rematch against the Charlotte Hornets, the Orlando Magic were in that extra gear. It was plenty of hope that everything will be fine.

"“Through three quarters, that was by far the best defense we played in these four exhibition games,” Steve Clifford said after the game. “I felt we were much more into the ball. we were not as spread out. Our pick and roll coverages were better. They are difficult to guard. I was very pleased. I thought we stepped on the floor with a good attitude.”"

There is no denying this fact.

The Magic raced out to a 27-10 lead. They found Nikola Vucevic trailing plays as he continues to put up threes at higher rates. And their defense locked in on the Hornets as they tried to push the pace and hoist threes. Orlando was contesting shots and forcing turnovers — six in the first quarter alone.

The Magic never really let go of the rope from there.

Orlando led by as much as 22 points and the starters left the game after the third quarter with a 16-point lead, forcing 17 turnovers, leading to 20 points and holding Charlotte to 40.9-percent shooting, although the team’s 11 3-pointers were a sign of trouble brewing for the bench in the fourth quarter.

It was the best the team had done to this point. The team was far from perfect, but it was the kind of progress the team wants to see.

"“During the preseason, we haven’t done our best yet on that end,” Vucevic said after Saturday’s game. “For us, the guys that have been here, we know what it is going to take. The coverages are going to be the same, the communication is going to be the same. That part as far as being familiar with it, there is no change, we just have to put a little more into it. I think we are aware of it and we can do it.”"

The team was not wholly satisfied with its preseason performance. There were plenty of poor signs and this is not a team that can simply flip a switch and be good enough. There is always a weariness for a team without a true star.

But things ended on a good note, for the most part.

Signs of growth

The other goal of the preseason is to show growth and improvement over the course of it. To get better with each game.

The Orlando Magic then finished the preseason with plenty of signs of improvement.

Cole Anthony started the preseason with a game he characterized as poor and finished it with 19 points and four assists, including the go-ahead basket in the final minute.

He had his struggles for sure, but ends the preseason averaging 13.8 points per game, a promising sign for a young player.

Chuma Okeke had his struggles too as he cautiously stepped onto the floor for the first time. But he continually got better as he came to understand the team’s defensive principles. He showed enough flashes as a shooter from the outside and moments when the defense clicked to build promise for his future.

In one possession in the third quarter, Okeke seemed to guard every player on the floor for at least a moment before the Hornets missed the shot.

Orlando saw their rookies grow and improve in meaningful ways.

"“I think there were definitely a lot of positives,” Anthony said after Saturday’s game. “That was my fourth NBA game played ever. There is a lot of work I’ve got to do. We as a team have a lot of work to do. I just have to keep better. I’m ready to keep working.”"

The rookies certainly needed this to get a taste of the NBA before the season started. Orlando had to feel good about how both played. Clifford said after the game that he believes both will contribute throughout the course of the season. Both seem set to take on roles in the rotation.

Relative results

Results in preseason games matter very little in the end. Especially to veteran players who know how to play together and know how to put the work in for the postseason.

Through all the experimenting that goes on throughout the preseason, it is all done with the eye on the regular season. A team has to put all the pieces together.

That is the biggest question coming out of the preseason. Have the Magic put all those pieces together? Were the flashes of strong play enough to hint at what this team can become or enough to get the repetitions they need?

Can this team really flip it on when the games count without sustained success in the preseason?

Certainly, the Magic felt good about its final preseason game. They felt like they put more things together and bounced back from any mistakes or lapses they had throughout the season.

"“It is good to show that we are learning from our mistakes and learning from the good things and bad things we have done,” Markelle Fultz said after Saturday’s game. “I think we showed when we are locked in on the floor and play together, everything looks really well. When we don’t, we aren’t going to be the gest team we can be.”"

The Magic saw both sides of their coin. They know there is still a lot to sharpen up and go over — Steve Clifford admitted the team is still getting fully organized.

The team will not have the room to take any more lapses or have any more of the kind of setbacks that marked the preseason. But it is just preseason.

Next. Orlando Magic need second unit to come together. dark

All the questions will get answered Wednesday when the team takes the floor for its first regular-season game.