Orlando Magic accept the defensive challenge and pick up the rewards

Wendell Carter played some stellar defense to help lead the Orlando Magic past Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Wendell Carter played some stellar defense to help lead the Orlando Magic past Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

38. Final. 103. 73. 108

The Orlando Magic essentially won the game on Franz Wagner’s 3-pointer with 1:45 to play. That broke a tie game and gave Orlando a three-point lead, completing a comeback from an early 16-point deficit in the first half and a lifeless start to the game.

The confidence and swagger of a team that believed it could win and believed in what it was doing quickly built in those final moments.

The Orlando Magic want signs the team can compete and beat quality teams like the Denver Nuggets (as injury-depleted as that team is). The team wants to see its young players win close games and show the outlines of who this team wants to be.

There it was in a 108-103 win over the Nuggets at Amway Center on Wednesday, snapping a seven-game losing streak.

The Magic played clutch throughout the fourth quarter after working their way back into the game. Cole Anthony worked his way through the lane and hit tough shots at the rim and step-back jumpers.

The team worked the ball to Franz Wagner on the final two scoring possessions where he hit a tough layup at the rim, beating Nikola Jokic before he could rotate over and the step-back three that gave the Magic the lead for good.

In between all that was some of the best defense the Magic have played all season. That is what it takes to erase a 16-point halftime deficit and was the sort of come-to-Jesus wake up the team needed about who it is.

The Orlando Magic needed a gentle nudge to become the team they believe they can be, using their defense to charge a comeback and break their losing streak.

This game was about how the Magic want to play and who they want to be. That is the only way they are going to win.

There was no rah-rah speech from coach Jamahl Mosley. But the coach reminded the team to compete and to get back to their identity.

That was a message received.

"“What coach kind of came in and told us at halftime is we can’t live and die by the jump shot,” Wendell Carter said after Wednesday’s game. “We can’t let that affect our defense. I feel like we came out and did a hell of a job of containing some of their best players and really sticking to the game plan we had set up at the beginning of the game. That kind of fueled our offense, in my opinion. When the timing was right, we took those shots and hit them.”"

The Magic’s defense was indeed the star of this game, even if those clutch shots and Cole Anthony’s return deserve their share of headlines.

Orlando held Denver to just 40 points in the second half and 41.2-percent shooting including 5-for-19 shooting from deep. The Magic turned 10 second-half turnovers into nine points and the team tallied eight fast-break points.

Orlando was able to turn the defense into good offense. And the energy flowed easily through the team.

It started early with a quick eight points as the Magic played with the energy they lacked in the first half. It was easy to see how that confidence just grew.

Even late as Orlando needed that last push, it came down to the team’s defense. It came down to Wendell Carter becoming a brick wall to keep Nikola Jokic from attacking the paint and getting their offense moving. Orlando did a good job stunting and crowding him too but they rotated quickly back to the perimeter.

Orlando deserved plenty of credit for slowing Denver down and getting the team back into the game and getting the win.

"“At halftime, the talk was more about we’ve got to be who we are,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Wednesday’s game. “That first half was not who we were at all. You talk about the intensity, the fight, the resilience, we didn’t show that as much in the first half. But that second half is exactly who we talked about being.”"

Wagner said the team did a better job increasing their ball pressure and getting the Nuggets out of the easy passes they were getting in the first half. That was a key to the team’s success.

That goes in addition to Carter’s defense on Jokic.

Carter credited his review of film and learning tendencies for his improvement defensively. But he sat down and set the tone as much as anyone for how the team wanted to defend with physicality in this one.

But it was also the team’s bench unit stepping up, especially Moritz Wagner with some timely shooting and pick-and-roll play to finish at the basket. And even R.J. Hampton was big getting into the ball and creating deflections that led to Magic run-outs and fast breaks.

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Orlando needed this reminder of what the team could be. And now have to find a way to replicate and repeat this kind of performance.

The Magic have mapped out the kind of team they want to be but have not always been able to execute it at a high level. The losses have piled up because of the team’s inconsistency at this — especially as they allowed their offense to dictate their defensive energy.

"“It’s always good getting a win no matter when it comes,” Carter said after Wednesday’s win. “It was very important tonight. We have a lot of injured players right now. With Jalen going down, it just makes it tough for us. But for us to go out and get a win against a playoff, probably a championship-contending team, shows that it doesn’t matter who we put out there as long as we stick to the gameplan, no matter what happens on the offensive end, we continue to hold our own on the defensive end, we can play with anybody in the league.”"

That was a good reminder the Magic can do the things they are setting out to do. Just as they have in every other win, Orlando won because of their fight and grit, but most importantly their ability to execute and defend.

The defense was the leader in the game. The switch turned on that end and sparked everything else.

Those great individual moments late in the game that led to the win only came because of the defense and the confidence the team suddenly had on that end to finish things out.

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Orlando needed to be challenged defensively and reminded of the team’s supposed identity. And the Magic answered the call.