The Orlando Magic have come to rely on their second unit to boost the team. It was the bench that was the catalyst to a come-from-behind win Sunday.
The Orlando Magic were dead in the water entering the fourth quarter.
The team had a one-point halftime lead that got ballooned into a 17-point deficit in the third quarter. That was a repeat of what happened in the first quarter when the starting group spotted the Washington Wizards a 16-4 lead and had to scramble to get back.
In the first half, it was Terrence Ross‘ hot shooting that got the team back in the game. But the second half was an entirely new challenge. That deficit was large. The Magic simply did not have it in them.
Last year, that would have probably been the game. If the starters could not at least break even, asking the bench to make up such a large deficit is only reserved for the teams with the most depth.
A night where the starters did not have it was a death sentence for the team.
To create that much of a deficit is usually a team effort and to climb out of that large of a hole is equally a team effort. In essence, the reserves are there to set the table for the starters and the finishing group to give them the best chance to win.
So far this season, the Magic’s best moments have come in the clutch. Orlando has won all three of its games with big plays in the final minutes of the game.
Sunday night, the team just had to get there. They needed the second unit to change the energy in the game.
It started early in the fourth quarter with Michael Carter-Williams hitting a couple of baskets to spark the Magic’s early 8-0 run. That started building the groundswell for the Magic’s comeback effort Sunday.
While players like Terrence Ross paced the Magic throughout — he scored 19 of his 26 points in the first half to help keep the Magic in the game early on. Michael Carter-Williams’ surprise contributions proved a necessary spark.
Orlando was finding energy off the bench and that led to a surprising 120-113 come-from-behind victory to reach 3-0.
"“If I could give a game ball, I’d give it to MCW,” coach Steve Clifford said after Sunday’s game. “He was the one in the huddles, on the bench, being positive like he always is. He brought the energy level and the positivity to the floor that changed the game. he made plays on both ends of the floor. To me tonight, he was the MVP.”"
Indeed, Carter-Williams changed the tone of the game. It was not just those early points in the fourth quarter. It was his energy defensively, especially guarding Bradley Beal. He never let the Magic slip or lose confidence they could make the comeback.
Several players said Michael Carter-Williams was vocal on the bench throughout the game trying to encourage the team and keep them together even with the team falling behind. He was the one who never really gave up on the game.
They also said that when they saw the energy he and the other players in that second unit played with, they had to match it.
It was many of the plays that will not show up in a box score that made a bigger difference. Other players besides Carter-Williams provided that push.
It was Cole Anthony taking a charge along the baseline to build up momentum. Or how the heady point guard attacked the offensive glass to keep possessions alive. On one such possession, Cole Anthony came flying in for a rebound and the ball squirted to Gary Clark who found Evan Fournier for three.
That 3-pointer made it a two-point game with 5.5 minutes to play. If the team did not believe that the comeback was happening at that point, then it certainly did at that point.
Little plays like these have an immeasurable impact. The fact they are all coming with this largely bench unit supplementing what the starters are doing is what differentiates good teams from the really dangerous ones.
The Magic’s bench has stepped up in a major way through three games this season.
"“I think we’ve got a chance to be a really good second unit,” Carter-Williams said after Sunday’s game. “We’ve definitely made some big plays. I think we have a long way to go. We’ve been able to get wins and come out on top. I think we’ve got a long way to go offensively and defensively. We’ve got to get better each day. Our potential to be a really solid second unit is really high. We’ve got great players and great young players and we work really hard.”"
The Orlando Magic’s bench scored 50 points in Saturday’s win over the Washington Wizards. Terrence Ross had 25 of those points and he will score the majority of the points. But the team got nine points from Cole Anthony and eight apiece from Michael Carter-Williams and Khem Birch. The bench scored 50 again on Sunday with Ross scoring 26 and Anthony adding 12.
The team ranks third in bench points at this point in the season behind the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves.
There is not a complete correlation between strong benches and winning. The Detroit Pistons were among the teams that scored the most points off the bench last year and even into this year. They are not exactly considered juggernauts.
Bench points can be kind of arbitrary. But that little boost can pay big dividends. They can change the energy for the team.
Last year, Orlando scored 38.1 points per game off the bench. That was a bit above the league median for bench points. Orlando relied heavily on Terrence Ross, of course, along with D.J. Augustin to score.
What matters more is whether the team can remain stable while starters sit and get rest. Ultimately the team needs its starters to finish and win games. Teams will rise and fall with their best players.
But the second units like the way the Magic are playing sets a tone to push the team to the end of the game.
"“Our second unit is tough,” Ross said after Sunday’s game. “We play with a lot of resiliency and we’re scrappy on defense. For the most part, I think that is our job to provide whatever the game is missing or lacking at that time. Tonight we did a good job staying together and making a lot of big plays until the starters picked it back up. It was a good night for us and that’s the level we have to play at.”"
Everyone played their role it seemed at some point during that run.
Carter-Williams caused some chaos with his tough defense. Ross had the 3-point shot working early when the Magic could not find a rhythm offensively. Even a player like Khem Birch provided something with his screening and defense to give the Magic that lift.
Getting to the finish
The Orlando Magic are experiencing something of an offensive renaissance — 114.2 points per 100 possessions through three games. But it is not entirely clear whether the team will be able to sustain this level of offensive play.
If the team stays together even through some of the struggles, the team could have a chance to build and continue growing.
"“I think the key for us is to stay together as a whole,” Michael Carter-Williams said after Sunday’s game. “Once the second unit goes in, our job is to defend first, find our scorers and either try to cut the lead or try to extend the lead. Tonight was just our night. There’s going to be plenty of nights where the starters go out and do well. They didn’t have it all the way going. But they came in at the end and finished it for us.”"
At this point, the Magic have made every play late in games to win. They have carried on the momentum that has come with strong second halves from the Magic’s reserve group. There does not seem to be much let up and the second unit has given the team an important lift.
This weekend, the Magic’s bench proved a huge difference. And Orlando is showing some much-needed depth to get through this season.