Orlando Magic still have a lot to prove and a lot of work to do

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has his team at 3-0 but still with a ton of work to do. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has his team at 3-0 but still with a ton of work to do. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic are off to a 3-0 start and riding high. But the team should know it still has a lot to prove and work to do to make this record last.

Following the Orlando Magic’s 120-113, come-from-behind victory over the Washington Wizards, coach Steve Clifford was asked about the team’s desire to get off to a fast start. Getting off to a 3-0 start seemed to accomplish the team’s goal of striking first this season and avoiding having to make up ground at the end.

Clifford scoffed a bit at this question — just as he scoffed at a question Saturday asking if the team’s 2-0 start would go to the team’s head. It is still way too early to look at the standings. Coaches typically do not even think about the standings and playoff positioning until 15-20 games into the season.

There is still a lot of season left. And one good week can get erased with one bad week very easily.

No one should take away what the Magic have accomplished so far. Their three wins are impressive and a sign of the team’s potential for improvement this season.

But there is still a lot of work to do. There is still a lot to prove.

Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but the Magic are not playing their best yet. They very easily could have been 0-3 and there are holes the team has to fill and work on to get where they ultimately want to be.

And as the team navigates the schedule — eyeing another big game Thursday against the Philadelphia 76ers between their two matchups with the Oklahoma City Thunder this week — the challenges will get tougher.

For now, this Magic team has stepped up its game in the biggest moments. This has been what has stood out most through the first three games. The team is taking major steps just on that alone.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic outpaced the Miami Heat down the stretch, building a small lead and holding onto it with some excellent execution for the win. They did the same in Saturday’s win against the Washington Wizards, making big play after big play and hitting shots to secure the win.

Sunday’s win was equally impressive for the team’s late-game execution. The bench spent the first half of the quarter erasing a 17-point deficit. And after some missteps, made the big plays down the stretch with both Markelle Fultz and Nikola Vucevic coming through in the stretch.

Through three games, the Magic have a +73.1 net rating in clutch minutes (defined as a game within five points in the final five minutes). They have played 10 clutch minutes so far, the third-most in the league. For a team that has struggled defensively, the 90.9 defensive rating rings very loudly.

The play at the end of games so far has been a preview of just how good this team can be.

So it is still puzzling looking at the bigger picture.

The Magic have a 107.3 defensive rating so far this season, putting them smack-dab in the middle of the league. Some of that has to do with playing two games against the offensively superb Wizards. This is why we use pace-neutral stats.

Still, the Magic have looked lost defensively for long stretches. Their pick and roll defense has been a mess since the preseason. The team is giving up 0.91 points per possession on pick and rolls to the ball handler and 1.18 points per possession on pick and rolls to the roll man according to NBA.com’s stats database.

Last year, those numbers were at 0.83 points per possession to ball handlers and 1.15 points per possession to roll men. Their ball containment on ball handlers especially was among the best in the league.

Some of this is because of defensive switches and strategy changes. The Magic are trying to hedge and blitz a bit more and the rotations behind it have been rough. The Magicare no longer packing the paint and dropping on every pick and roll — staples of their strong defense the last two seasons.

If you are looking for a reason why it feels like the Magic defense has slipped so much, it is because of their poor ball containment. This will be chief among the changes and adjustments the Magic have to make as the schedule continues.

Orlando’s offense has been humming well. The Magic have the fifth-best offensive rating for the early part of the season.

Of course, Orlando has done everything against just two separate opponents. Their back-to-back games against the Wizards will undoubtedly hide some of the team’s strengths. That is an offense that puts a lot of pressure on teams and makes defenses look worse than they actually are. And a defense that makes most offenses do well.

Orlando had some defensive breakdowns in the win over Miami, but were largely strong on that end for the entirety of the game. The stats bared that out, at least.

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The sample sizes are too small to draw any conclusions. The games against the Wizards weigh things heavily. Things have not normaled out yet statistically. And the team is still grinding to find its way.

Clifford would even admit that teams throughout the league are still figuring out how to play during the early parts of the season. The team is playing with regular season intensity but at preseason levels of execution. The team just has to keep working to get better.

And, at the end of the day, good teams do not win close games, they avoid them.

The Magic have yet to have a complete and full performance that results in a comfortable win. They have had to test their mettle with late-game pushes and execution to save games.

They have certainly stood up to this test. And that is a positive sign for the team’s growth. Teams have to be able to win late and this team is brimming in confidence after the third-largest fourth-quarter comeback in franchise history.

Nobody is quite ready to buy this team yet.

They are impressed with Markelle Fultz and Terrence Ross. But the Magic have not exactly beat the cream of the NBA’s crop. And, yes, everyone is excusing the Heat to some extent.

Orlando still has a lot to prove and a lot of improving to do. The team should not view its 3-0 record as a success. It is not the end of the journey.

This team will still know a whole lot more about itself in the coming weeks — the team is a week and a half away from the toughest part of their schedule. And as Clifford is reminding the media, the team will not have consecutive days between games until Feb. 3 and 4.

The team is going to have to develop and grow without the benefit of a full practice. There might still be some bumps in the road.

Next. Orlando Magic rookies will get their chance. dark

The team is not resting on its laurels. There is work to do. But the Magic are off to a good start.