The Orlando Magic got off to strong starts in both of their games against the Boston Celtics over the weekend. Their first quarters seemed to be setting them up for a competitive game.
The team was doing something it had done for a long time, entrusting the lead to the team's bench group. This is where the Magic have often grown and expanded leads. This is one of the team's great strengths and powers.
But things were thrown off kilter all weekend. Joe Ingles' injury limited him in Friday's game and kept him out of Sunday's game. The overall intensity the Celtics showed also threw the Magic off. Orlando did not have the same push from their bench group.
The formula was just off. As with everything else, in those two games. The Magic's usually stellar bench just could not deliver.
It was one of the many disappointments of the weekend. And just like the team's overall success, the bench's success has gotten everyone's attention.
"You have to credit what Boston did and give the level of respect to them," coach Jamahl Mosley said after practice Tuesday. "But also knowing that is the respect we are receiving. Teams are recognizing how good that unit is. So they know exactly how they have to play, how physical they need to be and what they need to disrupt.
"Teams are doing a very good job with that. But one thing about our group is we continue to make adjustments to that. They recognize what they need to do, how they need to do it, the way in which we need to play that has had them successful through the early part of the season."
The Magic's bench currently is second in the league in scoring with 45.1 points per game. Their average plus/minus of +1.2 points per game is 11th in the league. That bench group has been critical to a lot of the success the team has had.
The usual bench lineup of Cole Anthony, Gary Harris, Joe Ingles, Jonathan Isaac and Moe Wagner has a +10.6 net rating with a stellar 100.0 defensive rating in 71 minutes together. Replacing Joe Ingles with Franz Wagner ups that to +22.4 points per 100 possessions in 49 minutes.
There is a lot to like with those groups. And the Magic have used this bench to supercharge their team.
"Extend leads, go and get leads. It has definitely been important to us," Isaac said after practice Tuesday. "We definitely take pride in it. In that Boston game, we could have done a better job with the second unit and bounce back against Miami."
That was not the case over the weekend, of course. The Celtics' kept the Magic's bench in check in both games -- outscoring them 47-33 in Friday's game and holding them to 31 points in Sunday's game.
Cole Anthony and Moe Wagner have both been outstanding off the bench this year -- averaging 14.8 and 11.6 points per game respectively. The duo combined for 31 points on 9-for-22 shooting during the weekend games. And Anthony scored 17 of those points in Friday's game.
Boston did a good job winning those minutes and ensuring one of its star players was in at all times. That put constant pressure.
The Magic were also playing without Joe Ingles. He played in Friday's game but was severely limited because of the sprained ankle from the Orlando Magic's win earlier in the week over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Ingles has operated as essentially the team's point guard in these situations. And the team lacked ball movement all around in the two losses.
"I think we know how good we can be," Harris said after practice Tuesday. "Tip your hat to them, they had a great game plan and great adjustments. Missing Joe helped too. That definitely hurt us. Joe does a great job running the offense and making sure everyone is in the right spot and moving that ball around."
The Magic have rallied because of injuries all year. They will have to do so again.
Ingles did not participate in practice Tuesday and was listed as QUESTIONABLE on the team's injury report with the sprained left ankle. The good news on the injury front is that Wendell Carter was removed from the injury report and confirmed he will return in Wednesday's game.
The Orlando Magic are going up against another tough defense Wednesday in the Miami Heat. The Heat are also a team that likes to switch and play physically. It will be another big challenge for this team to stay connected and keep the ball moving.
That is something the Magic will have to figure out how to do without Ingles on the floor if he has to miss another game.
"[Joe Ingles is] a very big part of that unit the way he brings a level of poise and demeanor," Mosley said after practice Tuesday. "And what you see with he and Moe's pick and roll. They dice defenses apart. I think it's just taking a moment to help tie this group together differently now. We have to be able to adjust to how teams are playing it. But I think this is a group that is willing and wanting to do that."
The Magic's bench is a big part of their formula for winning. There is no doubt about that.
For a team that can sometimes struggle to score, they add some offensive push while still maintaining a lot of the defensive force that makes this team special.
The second unit has been as critical to this team's success as anything else.
"I think our second unit is confident as a unit," Harris said after practice Tuesday. "We are one of the best second units in the league. Just do whatever we can to help the first unit and for us together get some of these wins."
The Orlando Magic will need that bench to play a whole lot better as they look forward to the upcoming run of games on their schedule -- Wednesday against the Miami Heat and Thursday in Milwaukee against the Milwaukee Bucks to start. Everyone is going to have to play their role and step up.
The issue is everyone knows this bench is the Magic's superpower. And there is certainly more focus on those middle moments when the bench units are in. They are getting better shots from the opponents just as the entire team is.
The Magic will need them to step up.