The Orlando Magic’s opening two wins of the season have come in impressive fashion and have the beginnings of a team that could be very good.
It is hard to define when the light flicks on and a team learns how to win at a truly high level. The only thing anyone really sees is the result. The wins pile up and no one can quite explain why.
The exciting part of any young team is seeing them realize how good they can be and coming to understand what it takes to win at the highest levels. They play to a standard as much as they do to a score. And even when they do not hit that standard, they still find a way to win.
Watching those expectations shift and change is one of the big steps for a young team.
Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has long been coaching his team to a standard. He arrived in Orlando and immediately started coaching to that standard. He spoke to his team about what it would take to win in the playoffs and set the bar and the habits it would take to get there.
It seemed impossible the Magic would reach that at the time. They had gone through six seasons of irrelevancy before then. It seemed this group was hopeless.
All of last season, the Magic talked about trying to do more. And as they struggled to reach that goal, they still fought to play to that standard. They still needed to reach those heights and they were not giving that up.
The team has openly talked about its ambitions and its belief in itself.
They keep asking themselves the same questions: What do winning teams look like? What do the serious teams do?
They do something like what the Orlando Magic did in Saturday’s 130-120 win over the Washington Wizards. They do something like the way the Magic consistently stepped up in key moments in both their wins to start the 2021 season.
The seeds for the Magic’s success have been carefully laid and cultivated through the last three seasons. In these first two games, the work laid down and the dedication to make this work started to blossom.
"“It’s very exciting especially knowing we made some mistakes out there and we can play better,” Markelle Fultz said after Saturday’s game. “It’s always good to play to win. When you start 2-0, it makes it that much better. We still have some things to fix as a team and individuals. Just looking to improve each day. Take it day-by-day and game-by-game.”"
What the Magic did in these first two games is what winning teams do. Whether the team is able to grow and build on those successes to become something more will be the question. But these are the habits of winning teams.
Far from perfect
In both Wednesday and Saturday’s wins, the Orlando Magic were far from perfect. Their defense left a lot to be desired. And both games could have easily flipped the other way.
But in both instances, the Magic created big plays to keep the lead within distance and then create some breathing room down the stretch.
It might be a designed play out of a timeout that calms the team down. Or a steal that creates a fast-break and a momentum-changing play. It could be the team getting stops at the right moment that turn into buckets — a run that just makes the difference in the game. It could be a charge at the right moment that disrupts the rhythm of the other team’s offense.
"“Any time we can get stops and we can make our defense do the majority of our scoring, it helps,” Terrence Ross said after Saturday’s game. “Any time we get stops, we play very well in transition. It makes it easier for everybody else. We can get up and down the floor, gett into our pace and motion and just score that way.”"
All those elements were present in Saturday’s game.
Michael Carter-Williams slowed the game down with a charge with 9:30 to play. Markelle Fultz highlights a 13-2 flurry with an alley-oop to Aaron Gordon with about five minutes to play. It was Markelle Fultz again that helped convert Washington Wizards misses into basket late in the game too, setting up Nikola Vucevic for some big shots down the stretch.
It does not have to be pretty. It does not have to be perfect. The team still has a long way to go before it reaches its ultimate goals.
But the good teams find a way. Even on their worst nights, they find a way to compete and give themselves a chance.
As Steve Clifford said after the game, the Magic did what they had to do in the fourth quarter to get a good win against a good team.
This was a defining characteristic of another Orlando Magic team Steve Clifford coached too.
The 2008-10 Magic were experts at turning their worst nights into wins. Even if one element of their gameplan was not working, they found a way to compete and give themselves a chance to win.
This is what the good teams do. They simply find a way.
Who is to say if the 2020 version of the Magic are at that level? They do not have a player of Dwight Howard’s caliber to cover up mistakes. It still feels the margin for error for this team is impossibly small.
The team may still yet fall back to earth. What the team is experiencing now might be a surge of confidence fed by the team’s familiarity or the quirkiness of the first wave of games in any season.
Good teams find a way to win no matter the circumstances. And in two tight games in the final quarter, Orlando zoomed ahead with crushing and fatal runs to their opponents. they held off any threats to the lead they build with timely shooting and enough defense to win.
Playing to a standard, of course, winning is not enough.
The team is trying to play to a standard that will create sustainable winning. And while it is good to pull games out on evenings that are not particularly great, the team is going to need to put all the pieces together.
Orlando’s defense to this point has not been to its standards at all. And Saturday night saw the Wizards parade through the lane on pick and roll after pick and roll. The team gave up way too many 3-pointers, a trend that continued from the preseason.
The Magic are happy to get wins. But they want to do more than just win. And bigger tests are clearly on the horizon. Nobody is celebrating simply being 2-0.
"“It’s always good to start with two wins,” Nikola Vucevic said after Saturday’s game. ‘It’s easier to play from ahead as well. It’s still early. We have a lot of work to do. We have to understand that and not overreact to it. I think what’s helped us is we have the continuity of having a lot of the same players, a lot of the same rotation. It helps especially now that we have Cliff for a third year. It has given us a bit of an advantage early on.”"
The Magic wanted to get off to a faster start. And they banked on continuity and familiarity helping them get a leg up in this strange season. Teams like the Washington Wizards will eventually catch up as they get used to playing together.
Orlando is not working on the same issues.
But the way they have gotten there should be encouraging. The Magic have not played their best yet. They are still coming together and they are still finding their way to play consistently.
They know they have to keep playing the ways they have found to be successful and building upon those. That is something Vucevic said the team has not always done, even under Clifford.
Yet, even through all of this, they have found a way to win.
That is the beginning of what a winning team looks like. And if this continues, this year’s Magic team can aspire to be something greater than everyone imagined.