Effort is a good place for Orlando Magic to restart

Chuma Okeke continued his strong play as the Orlando Magic stunned the LA Clippers. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Chuma Okeke continued his strong play as the Orlando Magic stunned the LA Clippers. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports /

103. 38. 96. 77. Final

The story for Orlando Magic fans feels familiar.

Everyone believes the season is over before it really begins — counting down toward the summer and what it might bring and the promise of copious cap room and a draft pick on the horizon. It was easy to give up and the media began writing them off.

That story, of course, is the story of the beloved 2000 Heart & Hustle Magic. A team everyone projected to finish in dead last and was built to maximize cap room not only to get a top pick but also to sign potentially three mega free agents.

Darrell Armstrong, Bo Outlaw and Ben Wallace were never going to let that team drift into the night. And while there were certainly tough outings where the team’s talent level gave way, they surprised everyone with a 41-41 record.

This year after the Magic shipped off most of the core of their playoff teams of the last two years, many pegged the Magic as a team that was doomed to the bottom of the standings. And maybe they still are, even coach Steve Clifford freely admits this team has to do a lot of things right to compete and they are not going to score 110 points often enough to outscore teams.

The Magic’s margin for error is smaller than ever. But the team still aims to compete. And like those Heart & Hustle teams, they are quickly understanding their effort can take them a long way, even past the mistakes and shortcomings of this roster.

The Orlando Magic have shown already their willingness to compete and how far their effort might go to keep the team competitive and surprise the league.

A 103-96, come-from-behind, fourth-quarter defensive masterclass against the LA Clippers at STAPLES Center on Tuesday is a sure sign this team is not going to walk into the night and accept a losing fate. It is a sure sign the team has a bit of that Heart & Hustle spark in them.

One thing the Magic will make sure of is that their effort gives them a chance to compete.

"“It’s always nice to get a win, but the way we won, we played together, we played hard,” Chuma Okeke said after Tuesday’s game. “Each game we keep getting better as a team. It felt real good. . . . We just played as a team. We played for each other. We had some missed rotations at times. Toward the end of the game, we just said we had to help each other out. That’s what happened. You help each other on defense, that leads to early offense. We played good team defense.”"

The Magic erased a nine-point deficit with 3:48 to play by going on a 21-5 run. Included in that run were Wendell Carter blocking two shots at the rim, including a late try from Kawhi Leonard.

The Magic gathering three offensive rebounds, including a go-ahead tip-in from Wendell Carter and a pull-up jumper from Chuma Okeke. And four forced turnovers including three steals.

None may have been bigger than the possession that ended the game. With the Magic up three, Leonard missed a pull-up 3-pointer. Terrence Mann tracked down the rebound and kicked it out to Reggie Jackson in the corner. His three fell no good but right near Leonard.

Michael Carter-Williams had to beat Kawhi Leonard to the spot, knocking the ball off him and picking it up for a game-clinching dunk.

The effort was far from perfect. There were tons of mistakes — a lack of offensive movement in the first half, a cascade of second-chance points for Ivica Zubac and a defense still trying to get all on the same page — but that hard work and effort made up for a lot of mistakes.

That is what it is going to take for this team to have any chance to win.

"“That’s what we’re going to have to be,” coach Steve Clifford said. “We’re not going to be getting to 112 and stuff now. We’re going to have to play like this — defend, be low turnover. You can tell, their switching bothered us a lot. A lot of that is we haven’t played a lot together.”"

Building the foundation

The team has put in two impressive defensive performances since the new players joined the team. They gave up only 96 points in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday before this 96-point defensive effort against the Clippers.

What was different in this game was how the team took that effort up a level and tightened things up down the stretch.

Carter had his blocked shots but there were plays like Carter-Williams chasing down a rebound down the length of the floor and ending with a dunk to cut the lead to two. It is those little plays that make the difference in the game.

So too does the work from everyone throughout the roster.

The Magic had five players score in double figures, led by Chuma Okeke’s 18 points. Terrence Ross picked up his scoring in the fourth quarter with 10 points in the period despite an off shooting night. Otto Porter found a spark too with a couple of key drives to finish at the rim.

The defense spoke for itself. Wendell Carter’s blocked shots were building off good challenges from Mohamed Bamba throughout the game. Bamba’s game-high eight rebounds were all hard-fought and he and the team improved on the glass as the game went on as they struggled to handle Zubac on the boards throughout the night.

Like the Heart & Hustle team, the statistics did not always paint a pretty picture. But they would add up to a win.

"“This league is all about wins,” Wendell Carter said after Tuesday’s win. “Good wins, ugly wins, solid wins. It’s all about getting wins. Tonight we took a great step forward in the right direction. It definitely is a confidence booster going up against one of the best teams in the Western Conference, especially on the road. That’s all the confidence you need. Going into the next game, we have to figure out that same energy. Especially late in games.”"

The one thing that has been made clear is the Magic are not packing up their season. They want to win and to continue building good habits.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Even Clifford seems to be recognizing how difficult that task should be. But he is not one to put limits on his team. The standard is still the standard.

For a team trying to grow and learn, every little victory helps. Especially early as the team has to buy back in again.

Effort and the intensity the team played with — plus this desire, perhaps, to prove everyone wrong — is the place to start. This is the place the team can begin building.

This was proof the team can still compete and win.

"“It’s very important just because it shows we can do it and we can win as long as we go out there and play hard and play for each other and stick to the game plan,” Chuma Okeke said after Tuesday’s win. “It shows what we are capable of. We just have to keep on doing it and keep building on it from this game.”"

This team was never going to give up on themselves. They were never going to pack it in.

They may be undermanned, they may not have all the talent in the world, but they are going to give themselves every opportunity to figure things out and get every chance to compete.

That was the underpinning of the Heart & Hustle team. This Magic team was not going anywhere either. They have shown already how much they are willing to fight.

Next. Steve Clifford spending time re-organizing Orlando Magic. dark

That is clearly a great place to start.