Orlando Magic finding what they’re good at and their identity

Chasson Randle helped spearhead a spirited Orlando Magic defensive effort in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Chasson Randle helped spearhead a spirited Orlando Magic defensive effort in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports /

115. 38. 110. 69. Final/OT

Before the Orlando Magic’s new players took the court for their first game, coach Steve Clifford was trying to plan what to do with his new team.

Suddenly they would need a new way to play. They would need a new way to generate points and score. They would need a new way to defend and make everything work. They would need effort as a baseline but they would have to find something that works and something they could carry over time and time again.

Clifford told the media during that early press conference the Magic would have to find something they are good at. That part of the early discovery for the team would be critical to their success.

With so many new players, things would have to remain simple especially as he reloaded the basic offensive and defensive sets he wanted to run. But once the team discovered something it could use as an advantage, it would need to press it.

Three games are hardly enough of a sample size to make any sweeping conclusions. But important trends for this team are emerging. And so too is an identity.

What is this team good at?

Their effort and energy defensively have suffocated admittedly shorthanded opponents in the Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans. Suddenly not only is this team playing a suffocating level of defense, the team is also forcing turnovers at a high rate feeding a fast break and the energetic young players this team is suddenly full of.

The Orlando Magic are still refining their way to play and how they will compete with an entirely new roster. But they are hitting on one thing that has propelled them early on.

The Magic have long talked about picking up their pace and using turnovers to feed the offense. At least through three games, that has become this team’s identity.

The small sample size alerts should be blaring after just three games. Everything should be taken with huge grains of salt. The Magic have played three teams that were severely undermanned — both the Clippers and Pelicans played eight-man rotations in their losses to the Magic.

No one will take the wins for granted. And the way the team won this game might well be a strategy to continue winning down the road.

Orlando has used turnovers and this defense to feed their offense. That is their way to play.

"“I think both nights, we have gotten some easy breakouts off our defense,” Clifford said after Thursday’s game. “James Ennis was at the forefront of that. I know at halftime we had 28 deflections, which is a ton. We had 18 in the second quarter. That’s going to be our chance to win and play consistently.”"

The Magic recorded a season-high 16 steals and forced 24 turnovers. They scored 36 points off those turnovers to spearhead a 115-110 overtime win at Smoothie King Center on Thursday.

The Pelicans turned the ball over on 21.0-percent of their possessions. On more than one of every five possessions, the Magic forced a turnover in this game.

Ennis had four of those steals but was far from the only person making plays defensively.

NBA.com tracks deflections differently than Clifford and his staff, but the Magic finished with 19 deflections for the game. They average 13.1 deflections per game, the eighth-fewest in the league. Since the new players began playing, the Magic are posting 12.0 deflections per game.

Deflections in this way are not necessarily correlative to a strong defense. And the NBA tracks deflections differently than the coaching staff does. But it is a sure sign of the team’s defensive activity.

It was the key to the game with no player being bigger than Chuma Okeke’s steal to tie the game in a game where he struggled offensively for the first time in a week.

But this has become the pattern for the Magic and a consistent weapon for the Magic.

In the three games since the Magic started using the players they acquired last week, the Magic are posting a 17.4-percent opponent turnover rate. That is the third-best mark in the league this week.

For the entire season, the Magic have largely spent their time in the bottom-10 in the league in forcing turnovers. Orlando is currently 20th in the league with a 13.0-percent turnover rate.

To see this kind of increase is both promising and a bit suspect. It will be interesting to see if the Magic can keep this up.

It has helped the Magic give up just 99.0 points per 100 possessions in the last three games, the second-best mark since Sunday.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Again, small sample sizes prevail. But this is a clue of how the Magic want to play and how they have always wanted to play.

Clifford in talking about some of the team’s defensive issues throughout the course of the season has bemoaned the team’s struggles to create turnovers. It has hurt the team trying to pick up their pace even if they were solid in other areas defensively.

This was a chance for them to get their pace up and out in transition. This has been a longtime emphasis for Clifford that was largely unrealized.

But getting all these turnovers has helped the Magic realize some of this role.

Orlando is scoring 21.3 points off turnovers in the last three games, third in the league, and 15.3 fast-break points per game, fourth in the league. For the season, the Magic are posting 13.3 points off turnovers per game (the fewest in the league) and 9.9 fast-break points per game, the fourth-fewest in the league.

Considering the Magic traded away many of their best half-court offensive options a week ago, trying to steal points with turnovers, points off turnovers and fast-break points makes sense. It has created at least the perception of a sped-up, more-exciting brand of basketball.

There is definitely a lot more potential for fast-break opportunities with Michael Carter-Williams and R.J. Hampton both as point guards who prefer to get downhill and catch defenses sleeping.

Who knows how much of this will last?

The team is playing with tons of defensive energy. That has been the offspring for a lot of this early success. The Magic have sensed opportunities to fill in gaps and make up for other offensive shortcomings.

Despite all the positive play, the Magic still have the fourth-worst offensive rating in those three games. There will still be a lot to resolve offensively when teams get tighter and figure out how to handle the Magic’s suddenly active defense.

Orlando has taken advantage of some unusually weak teams who could not handle their energy and surging confidence. And maybe a bit of a chip on its shoulder with all the doubts surrounding this team’s remaining potential.

"“We’re going to go out there and play our hardest,” Wendell Carter said after Thursday’s game. “We’re going to give ourselves a chance every game. A lot of people saying that don’t play basketball. They’re sideliners. They just want to talk. We’re here, we’re living it. We know how most of these players play. We’re going to be straight.”"

This weekend against the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets — two of the best teams in the Western Conference and both playing well after the All-Star Break — will likely bring the team crashing back to earth a bit.

But if this is the start of something, the Magic are starting someplace good. Orlando has to feel this is the basis for them to grow from.

Clifford was trying to find a way to figure out what this team is good at. That would be an easy place to begin rebuilding.

Next. Orlando Magic need to begin melding new roster. dark

Through three games, the team has had a propensity for forcing turnovers and defending. That might very well be an identity he and this team can work and build with.