Orlando Magic’s transition to pace will have its rocky moments

The Orlando Magic are aiming to pick up their pace again to spark their offense. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic are aiming to pick up their pace again to spark their offense. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic view pace as a key to getting more from their offense and taking their next steps as a team. They started employing that in their opener.

When the Orlando Magic are in transition, things can be very pretty.

Take the play where Cole Anthony found Aaron Gordon in transition for the highlight-reel dunk everyone is still talking about.

The Magic created a stop when Nikola Vucevic blocked a shot. The team dug out the rebound and got out to the races with Anthony throwing the ball somewhere near the rim for Gordon to finish.

This is fast-break basketball at its simplest and most pure. A team gets a surprising stop while the offense is scrambled thinking they are getting a score and outraces the opponent to the other end of the floor.

The Magic are trying to press their advantage with pace and trying to catch defense in this transition state. They have the players to do it as this sequence described.

This will become central to their offense.

"“AG is probably the most athletic dude I have ever played with,” Anthony said after practice Thursday. “That dude has got some bounce and some springs in his feet. Especially on that lob, I’m going to throw it and I knew he was going to get it. Especially as a rookie, if he doesn’t catch that lob, I’m probably going to get subbed out. Dudes are more athletic. The average level of athleticism are way higher. Dudes are taller, stronger, it definitely changed. It’s nothing I’m not used to yet.”"

Pace again is a focus for the Magic. They want to build upon the things that worked toward the end of last season when they picked up their tempo and pace significantly. They did so again in the bubble to some positive effect.

It is chaotic with the transition and panic of a team trying to slow the other team down and beautiful in the way that it displays the power, grace, speed and athleticism of NBA basketball. It is these kinds of plays that get put in highlight reels and these kinds of plays that prove to be the difference in games.

There is simply no slowing down a strong fast-break. And with how offenses have figured out ways to misdirect and manipulate defenses so quickly, these seemingly unstoppable plays can be soul-crushing — or momentum-building for the team converting them.

The whole purpose is to put pressure on the defense, catch them off balance and force them into uncomfortable matchups. Defenses are clearly still trying to catch up to where offenses are — coach Steve Clifford said the Orlando Magic employed more switching than they normally do to try to combat the Miami Heat’s 3-point.

Orlando, without consistent or threatening 3-point threats, have to find a different way to put the pressure on. That will come with the team’s tempo and pace.

Strong beginnings

In Wednesday’s game against the Miami Heat, the Orlando Magic posted 106.5 possessions per 48 minutes, a number significantly greater than the 99.0 possessions per 48 minutes they posted in the 2020 season. Orlando recorded 21 fast-break points in the win — better than the 11.9 they posted in the 2020 season.

Orlando did some interesting things to build up in transition. But there were a lot of problems too.

The Magic committed 17 turnovers in the game. Some of that sloppiness was certainly from the beginning of the season. Teams are still getting themselves organized and playing at regular-season intensity is a different task.

But some of that too was the team’s pace verging on the reckless.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Coach Steve Clifford has long lauded his team’s ability to execute plays in the half-court. But where he says the trouble comes is when the play breaks down and the team has to freelance. This is where the team misses pure shot creators and star players.

And in a fast-breaking, higher-pace offense, there will be a lot more of these sets where players are expected simply to make a play.

"“It always starts with tempo,” Clifford said after practice Thursday. “The tempo of your offense impacts your defense. For every team, you can’t do a lot else until you find the tempo that works for your team.“I look at our group and how we can play best and the risk/reward is there for us to try to play faster. You can see last night, I think we’re playing faster but it’s not so breakneck that we can’t get back and play well in the halfcourt also. That’s something we are going to have to watch closely.”"

Orlando scored 105.6 points per 100 possessions. That number is less than the 107.9 points per 100 possessions the team scored last year. The offense still needs some work, something that will undoubtedly come with reducing the team’s turnovers.

But the Magic generally liked the pace they played with and some of the chaos and uncertainty it created in the defense. The team’s defense played exceptionally well, especially in the opening and closing quarter, helping feed the team’s transition play.

On several occasions, the Magic even pushed the ball up the floor off makes. Quickly getting the ball out of the basket and passing it upcourt to Markelle Fultz to try to set up Nikola Vucevic in the post against a scrambling defense.

Finding the balance between playing up and down and getting into the team’s sets is going to be the challenge for this year’s team.

This will be something to watch if the team wants to keep playing at this pace and overall speed. For the Magic pace is about initiating their offense quicker and getting into and through their sets with more intensity. The team seemed happy with that throughout the course of Wednesday’s game.

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To play this style, the team is going to have to make playing at this breakneck pace and making plays in the open floor more normal and more organized. That was still something that was a work in progress.

Getting comfortable

Everyone was playing at a pace they have to get comfortable with.

In this sense, they might need to take a page from the rookies and learn to slow themselves down even as they play faster.

"“I think I was just rushing myself,” Chuma Okeke said after practice Thursday. “That’s just me getting back used to playing and stuff. Just little stuff like that.”"

Both rookies are going to learn very quickly. The levels of athleticism and what even the most average players can do — let alone the guys at the top of that spectrum — can do are very different.

Cole Anthony echoed Chuma Okeke’s thoughts. He said the biggest thing he has to learn and adjust quickly is just being more patient. He said he also felt like he was in a rush for much of the game.

Anthony had a team-high six assists but also three turnovers, showing just how far that learning curve is. It is something he and the team are going to be going through.

Even though the Magic’s offensive rating was lower because of turnovers and a few shots that came too early in the shot clock before the team could get into its offense, the offense seemed to work fine. Especially in the big moments in the game.

Next. Orlando Magic take first steps to build stronger 2021. dark

The team though is hoping to keep this pace up and play with this intensity as they continue to grow and develop. That might well create the kind of highlight plays that come in transition and give the offense a new element.