Franz Wagner's return gave Orlando Magic its groove back

Franz Wagner made his return to the court for the Orlando Magic and immediately provided a lift for a team that finally looked whole.

Franz Wagner made his return to the court and immediately lifted the Orlando Magic in a critical win over the Miami Heat.
Franz Wagner made his return to the court and immediately lifted the Orlando Magic in a critical win over the Miami Heat. / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
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Final. 87. 110. Magic Heat Final 01.21.24. 105. 38

It is going to take some time for Franz Wagner to get back to the torrid pace he was on before he rolled his ankle early in the game against the Sacramento Kings back on Jan. 3. But it will not take long to see glimmers of that player or the impact he can make on this team.

Take the third quarter when the ball swung to him on the perimeter and he deftly pump-faked and side-stepped his defender before draining a three. He put three fingers up as he went to the other end of the court.

Wagner may not be back -- although you could fool anyone with how he could still weave through defenders for floaters and shots around the rim (that touch will return). But the team's swagger certainly feels back. The mojo and juice that defined this team early in the season.

It finally felt like the team was whole again for the first time in a long time. And that is bad news for whoever the magic are playing.

"I think we set the tone for the rest of the game," Wagner said after Sunday's win. "I think we were really locked in. Even coming out in the third we had a good energy and a good vibe about us. It didn't feel like we've never played together or anything like that. I think the coolest thing not just about that group but the whole team is we talk about stuff when we see stuff on the court and communicate a lot. That stuff helps a lot."

Wagner finished with 19 points on 6-for-13 shooting in the Orlando Magic's dominant 105-87 win over the Miami Heat at Kia Center on Sunday. He added five assists for good measure. Wagner had 14 of his 19 points in the second half as he gained more confidence and aggression as the game went on.

Those are solid but small numbers with what Wagner is capable of. The real impact was felt everywhere else.

It felt like a weight was lifted off everyone. The team played freer and more energetic. They hounded and chased Miami in what was the third-best defensive outing by defensive rating this season.

It finally looked like the Magic were playing the basketball that got them out to such a hot start in November. It finally looked like the Magic played like themselves.

It was just what the team needed.

"It feels good to have everyone back tonight, especially Boogie [Franz Wagner]," Markelle Fultz said after Sunday's game. "To have him in the starting lineup, I think you can just see how effective, again, our defense is when we have that unit in. And offensively, it's just going to continue to get better as we continue to get reps with each other and continue have different lineups out there."

Everything the Magic did felt very replicable and very much a part of this team's identity. It felt like rediscovering who this Magic team.

It starts with the team's defense. The Magic have always been trying to leverage their size to get into passing lanes and force deflections and turnovers. They like to overplay and make sure opponents see a wall of arms facing them.

The Magic used that swarming defense to force 18 turnovers to score 29 points. The Magic love to get out and run off these turnovers.

Then came the dominance in the paint. Orlando tries to press this advantage a lot with its size, leveraging mismatches to get their two best players downhill. Even with the Heat showing traps to the wings when the Magic tried to run pick and rolls, they found a way to get downhill for 54 points in the paint.

On top of that, the Magic held the Heat to 36 points in the paint, a big factor in their defensive success.

Orlando knows it will take time to get the offense up and running again. But playing this level of defense is a huge step for the team. It felt like this is who the Magic always thought they would be.

"It was great to have them out there," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Sunday's win. "I mean just those guys and their chemistry because you never know how it's going to go because not having practice time, bodies being down, different guys, different lineups. But what it does is it goes to show the credit of our coaches keeping these guys prepared. The chemistry which these guys have, their communication is fantastic and on a high level from the beginning of the game to the end. Regardless who's out there, these guys sat down and guarded the entire night."

The Magic have been waiting to see this team fully deployed. They have been waiting to see their starting group together. Injuries have been such an overarching part of the season, they felt like they were just trying to keep their heads above water in so many ways.

For the first time since Oct. 31, the Magic had their opening night and fully healthy starting lineup on the floor. Even reinserting Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter into that group along with Franz Wagner's return just had an uplifting effect on the team.

In all, that starting group won their minutes 47-30 in 18.9 minutes on the floor. Every starter scored in double figures too, led by Paolo Banchero's 20 points and Franz Wagner's 19. Wendell Carter added 17 as he continues his torrid scoring pace as he gets back to full health. That was something he was not doing when this group was together earlier in the season.

Not to mention he matched Bam Adebayo's minutes and while Adebayo still scored 22 points to go with 11 rebounds and seven assists, the Magic made those points tough and won those minutes handily.

In all, they have a +16.5 net rating with a stellar 93.4 defensive rating in 97 minutes in five games this season. The fact this was their fifth game together so far this season only shows how much the Magic have dealt with and how much they have had to overcome.

The Magic have not been able to be whole. And getting everyone back on the floor was a humongous boost to help this team return some of its confidence.

"We have an unbelievable team from the starter guys all the way to the end," Fultz said after Sunday's win. "Things are going to happen. It's next-man mentality. But to have our unit and have everyone back at full strength, we're a really good team. We're a hard team to beat when we have everyone. it's going to continue to get better as we get guys back in the lineup and everyone steps in and do what they do."

The Magic will have to find a way to make this consistent. Their defense is something that has become central to their identity. But even this was a bit of an outlier for them. The energy of being fully healthy will wear off at some point. And there is a tough challenge ahead Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Next. OMD Mailbag 01.21.24. OMD Mailbag: Looking past the midpoint of the season. dark

But Orlando again showed what it is capable of. The team again showed how good it can be and how dangerous the team can be.