The Orlando Magic have had to grind through the last two weeks with Franz Wagner out of the lineup thanks to a sprained ankle. They have had to piece together a rotation thanks to injuries throughout the roster -- and an illness that worked its way through the team.
With the losses piling up and the team struggling to keep the same guys on the floor consistently, the Magic were losing grip defensively. Everyone could sense it as much as the numbers could.
It was clear the team was fighting, but it was a struggle to get much going offensively beyond hoping Paolo Banchero could save the team. That was their only plan. The team just needed some relief.
Here comes the calvary. Here comes some hope. Here comes the light at the end of the tunnel.
More importantly, here comes a devastating return to the defense that was crushing the league through the first months of the season. Here comes Magic basketball.
The Orlando Magic leaned on that defense hard in a frustrating shooting night against the New York Knicks -- 44.7 percent shooting overall and 8 for 29 from deep. But they turned in one of their best defensive performances of the season, holding the Knicks to 94 points, a 106.8 defensive rating, 39.8 percent shooting, 13 for 40 from three (32.5 percent) and just 16 fourth-quarter points.
Getting those healthy bodies back went a long way to rebuilding that defensive pressure and intensity.
They then leaned heavily on the shot-making of Paolo Banchero and the playmaking of Markelle Fultz to get themselves into the lead and stay ahead. Orlando used a 17-6 kick to close the game in the final 7:38 of the game to win.
That is what keyed just enough offense to surpass the Knicks in the fourth quarter for a 98-94 win at Madison Square Garden.
"Just find a way," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Monday's win. "I think when it's all said and done, you have to find a way and the way they did it was defensively. Hold that team to 94 points, guarding the right way down the stretch, protecting the rim, keeping them to 36 points in the paint, doing it without fouling.
"I think we have to know that defense travels. defense is going to continue to be what we hang our hat on. Our toughness, our resilience, our continued fight no matter what is happening throughout the game."
It has been evident how much of a patchwork the team's defense has been with all the missing players. And just as clear how much adding the injured players back into the fold gave them a much-needed boost.
Wendell Carter is essential to the team's defense with his ability to guard the perimeter and track back to the paint. Markelle Fultz too is a big guard who is adept at darting in for steals and strong enough to defend the block if need be.
It is no coincidence how key getting those healthy bodies back was to the team's success and even down the stretch. Getting Wendell Carter back for the first time in five games along with the returns of Markelle Fultz, Joe Ingles and Jonathan Isaac from sitting out back to backs proved critical.
Orlando could get back to themselves because their key players were back in the fold and ready to make an impact.
"We had a lot of injuries and illnesses these last couple of weeks," Carter said after Monday's game. "I definitely felt like I wanted to come back as quickly as I can to help these guys out."
Carter scored 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting in his return game, playing 18:53 and blowing past his 16-minute restriction. He was aggressive offensively and just fit better within the offense. His defense too was excellent defending the rim.
Fultz had six points, five rebounds and seven assists, setting up several shots in the final two minutes to ensure the Magic got the win. And Ingles finished with six points and four assists.
The Magic's bench was the biggest factor in the win with Cole Anthony scoring 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter to bring the Magic back into the game and help them take the lead. Isaac too was a big factor defensively even without the stats to show it.
"I think they put on a defensive clinic in a lot of ways," Mosley said after Monday's win. "There was protection at the rim. You saw Wendell and JI both going for blocks down the stretch and keeping them off the glass. I thought they did a great job setting the tone defensively and then being able to keep them off balance by being able to run after you get the defensive rebound."
The bench group featuring Carter, Ingles, Fultz and Isaac saved the game in many ways. Every player off the bench was at least a +6 for the game with Carter at +14 and Fultz at +11. They entered the game in the first quarter with the Magic down by two points and left the game up by six.
The same happened in the fourth quarter with that trio specifically entering the game with the Magic down by 10 points and leaving the game down only six.
Carter and Fultz would close the game and make critical plays to help the Magic maintain their late lead.
Fultz re-entered the game with 2:37 to play and proceeded to pull down a key offensive rebound before finding Paolo Banchero for a pull-up jumper. He then hit Carter to set up a hook shot -- with that formerly injured left hand -- to give the Magic a five-point lead with 44.1 seconds to play.
Those were the plays that won the game.
"It's great to have those guys back," said Banchero, who scored 20 points on 9-for-19 shooting. "We're a different team when they are on the court. I think it showed today with their veteran presence and leadership. I think [Markelle] did great coming in and closing and setting me up with those mid-ranges. I give them a lot of credit."
Health is so important for this team. Everyone knew that from the beginning of the season after the way last year went. They wanted to lean on this depth.
This stretch pushed the limits and it put the team down in a lot of ways. The Magic have been waiting to get everyone back and back into rhythm for some time now. They know they can get back to that level and soon as their players return -- and the schedule softens up.
It started with their defense and the effort they were able to bring. That is who they are. They can show that more and more now that players are returning and the team can lean on these players to make critical plays.