The Orlando Magic are the last remaining undefeated team. But they would admit they have not played their best yet and they have plenty to clean up.
The Orlando Magic are the last team standing.
With the Brooklyn Nets defeating the Atlanta Hawks in a shootout on Wednesday night, the Orlando Magic are the last remaining undefeated team in the NBA. That is a distinction the team has never had before. Just as the team has never been 4-0 before.
Of course, the start to a season is not how a season will finish. There are still 68 games to play and the Magic have had — at least by opponent record — a fairly tame record.
That should not diminish the accomplishment. The team has had to gut out wins and prove itself every night. And that remains true as they enter their next game — Thursday’s matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers at Amway Center.
Khem Birch when asked about being undefeated Thursday morning said he does not like to focus on those historical markers. They tend to distract from the job ahead.
And even at 4-0, the Magic know they still have a lot of work ahead. If anything has been encouraging about the start so far, it is the Magic’s recognition that they are winning but still have a lot to improve and work upon.
“I think that for us there is still a lot of room for improvement,” Nikola Vucevic said after Tuesday’s win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. “I guess the good thing is we started with some wins. We also know we haven’t played as well as we can. The positive is if we are able to win and if we work on those things and get better, we can take a step forward. We’re happy with where we are to start the season 4-0. At the same time, we’re aware there are so many things we can do better, especially on the defensive end.”
The Magic have often pointed to their defense as an area that needs improvement. Coach Steve Clifford has noted the team’s need to be better defending pick and rolls and has noted some improvements.
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Statistically speaking, the Magic are 11th in the league in defensive rating giving up 106.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. It is still too early to draw conclusions about any statistics. But the defense is still heavily weighted by two straight games against the Washington Wizards — where the team gave up 120 and 113 points in back-to-back games.
There are at least signs the Magic’s defense has found some form. That comes out especially in the fourth quarter, where the Magic are giving up 90.4 points per 100 possessions. That is the third-best mark in the league.
All this has been boosted by an offense that is cooking right now. The Magic are fifth in the league in offensive rating, scoring 114.3 points per 100 possessions
But even there the Magic would likely say the team is not completely running on all cylinders.
The team is still shooting an icy 34.9-percent on 3-pointers (19th in the league) and has only 23.3 assists per game (20th in the league). the passing numbers may not be as bad because of free throws, the team’s free throw rate has skyrocketed into the 30s.
Even there, according to Second Spectrum, the Magic have had only 44.0 potential assists per game, ranking 27th in the league. The Magic while focusing a lot on Markelle Fultz’s ability to drive the lane and work off the dribble, still need to improve their passing. Nearly 10 percent (9.1-percent to be exact) of their passes end up as assists. That is a high ratio among the league.
The Magic are doing enough to win by feasting on shots in the paint (50.0 per game for 11th in the league) and hitting on mid-range shots — a league-high 21.0 mid-range field goal attempts per game for 46.4-percent shooting, seventh-best in the league.
It is hard to say how much of this is sustainable. The Magic are executing well enough to win. That is the only stat that matters.
But there is room for improvement even as the team has picked up wins.
“In the past, we haven’t had many years when we weren’t able to start with wins,” Vucevic said after Tuesday’s win. “It’s always easier to play from ahead. It’s important for us to understand there is a lot of room for improvement. It’s a lot easier to improve when you are winning than when you are losing. The continuity of us being together for so long and having guys playing together and understanding each other. That chemistry is huge. We’re not there yet, we’re not perfect.”
All of these above-listed stats obviously deserve the small sample size warnings. Things can change very quickly. One bad week can erase all the work from one good week.
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The Magic have their four-game homestand beginning Thursday night to continue banking wins before their schedule gets extremely tough beginning next Friday — and even the Cleveland Cavaliers next year are playing well at 3-1 on the season.
Still, Orlando should feel some confidence.
Vucevic said it was encouraging to see the team sweep their three-game road trip. Even Clifford said it was hard to win three games on the road regardless of opponents. That is a major step for the team to sweep those three road games and get confidence away from the Amway Center.
Orlando has put emphasis on winning at home too. And the team has to rally together and clean up plenty of things both offensive and defensively. It does not feel like the Magic have played a complete, 48-minute effort yet.
The team is encouraged by their success because of this fact and acknowledgment.
“The ceiling is very high for this team,” Fultz said after Tuesday’s win. “We still have guys trying to figure out stuff and still trying to get to playing our style of basketball. I think it’s very exciting to be 4-0. That’s what our goal is to come out every night and win. To be able to have four wins and go on a road trip and go 3-0 is huge for us. We have to keep improving and growing.”
The Magic are not done obviously. The first few weeks of the season always see some odd results. Teams are at different places as they try to prepare for the season. And this season especially with the shortened training camp, teams are still finding their way.
Orlando has proven to be ahead of the curve in many ways. The team has been able to put together some focused fourth quarters to pull out wins.
With how tight everyone expects the playoff chase to be, every win is going to matter. The Magic will reap the benefits of these early victories.
But there is still a lot of work to do as this team carves out its identity and its way to play.
This team still has not played its best.