Orlando Magic have built a hit-first, physical mentality built for the Playoffs

The Orlando Magic continue to show the rest of the league how difficult they are to play. They have a hit-first, defensive mentality that is built for the Playoffs.
The Orlando Magic have established themselves as one of the best defensive teams in the league. Their physical brand of basketball can frustrate opponents.
The Orlando Magic have established themselves as one of the best defensive teams in the league. Their physical brand of basketball can frustrate opponents. / Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Pelicans had had enough. After nearly 48 minutes, the Pelicans, undoubtedly feeling the pressure of another loss as they slipped down the standings and faced the prospect of a losing homestand this late in the season, had reached their breaking point.

With seven seconds remaining, the Pelicans had three players get straight ejected and told to hit the showers early. The Magic used the extra free throws to ice a 117-108 win -- staffers racing to the locker room were just as confused as everyone else to what happened.

Symbolically though, it said a lot.

The Pelicans were frustrated with another loss. They were pushed around and never really had a chance -- a late rally cut the deficit to six with 34.7 seconds to play, but the Magic forced a pair of missed threes and Paolo Banchero broke free from the press for a dunk before the technical fouls ended the game.

The Magic had pushed and prodded and bullied their way to the basket all game long, even when they were not shooting well. The Pelicans had an exasperated feeling even early on when they had the lead. The Magic probably knew the truth long before those final moments.

They punched first. They were more physical. They were the aggressors.

And that frustrated the Pelicans. It gave New Orleans no chance to come back once Orlando limited its turnovers and raced ahead.

But this is Magic basketball. This is part of the team's identity. This is why the Magic feel like they could be more dangerous in the Playoffs.

"I think one it's our mindset," Franz Wagner said after Wednesday's game. "I think everyone on the team is ready for that and has that mentality. We do it in practice and we do it in training camp. At this point, it feels different. It becomes a habit at this point. The more we do it, the better we get out."

It is hard to be a strong defense in this league without embracing physicality.

Orlando is second in the league with a 110.5 defensive rating. In this post-All-Star officiating adjustment where there have been fewer foul calls and more physical play, the Magic are first in the league at 106.3 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Those are the numbers. But you can just look at the Magic and see how physicality plays a role in everything they do.

They are big, tall and long. They use that size to their advantage smothering teams with switches on the perimeter, able to have 6-foot-10 players like Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner defend guards on the perimeter as ably as they can guard the paint.

Jalen Suggs has carved out an All-Defensive Team caliber season. He has done this with a maniacal defensive style where he squeezes through screens and becomes a 6-foot-4 wall. He anticipates getting to spots.

But more than that, he uses his body as a hindrance. He absorbs contact and takes hits to the chest. You can joke about how he flies around and throws his body into the fray, but that is all strategy. Suggs wants players to feel him and his pressure.

Wagner does not flail around and hit the floor as often, but he too is excellent at positioning himself and anticipating where the ball will go. He takes a lot of hits to the chest but that is what it takes to play defense. And teams get frustrated they are unable to get around all the big bodies.

When teams do drive into the paint, they usually find a wall of size.

The Magic collapse the paint well, giving up 47.7 points in the paint per game (eighth in the league). Even without a traditional shot blocker, the Magic allow only 25.4 field goal attempts per game in the restricted area.

And that does not even get to the impact Jonathan Isaac has, where he is an eraser. The Magic have a 101.7 defensive rating with Isaac on the floor. Isaac has the effect of deterring players from even taking shot attempts, as happened several times in Wednesday's game when players thought about a drive and then turned off when they saw Isaac lurking in the background.

Orlando is an intimidating team. The Magic force a 15.3 percent turnover rate (second in the league). The Magic are tough to get through. Their physicality is a big part of that.

It is too easy to say simply the Magic play harder than everyone else. That has become the reputation of this team to explain their defensive energy. They certainly do play very hard. But there is a lot of purpose behind it too.

The Magic have drilled this mentality since the beginning of the season.

"It definitely starts at the top with the coaches," Paolo Banchero said after Wednesday's win. "That's been our mentality and their message since training camp. You don't just wake up and decide you want to play physical, it's drilled in our heads since before the season. This is how we're going to play. This is our advantage and how we can win games and slow teams down is with our defense and our physicality. I think everyone understands that. We understand also we have the personnel to do it. We all love taking that challenge on night in and night out to make it hard for the other team."

This is at the center of the Magic's culture and their success. If the goal is to play their best basketball later in the season, they seem to be doing that. Orlando has a clear sense of its identity and complete buy-in to do what they have to do to win.

That part is not easy to do either. Convincing players to take those hits and dish them out first is a big hurdle for a lot of players. Not everyone is built for it.

But the Magic have created a culture where everyone commits.

Just look at how much better Moe Wagner has gotten on defense going from a league-worst (among rotation centers) 75.5 percent field goal percentage at the rim last year to a more respectable 64.0 percent according to Second Spectrum and 24 charges drawn the third-most in the league. Taking charges is rim protection too.

"You're not afraid of contact. You embrace it," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Wednesday's win. "You take what the game is giving you and you're not afraid to bring it back. But you do it the right way. That's what we continue to do."

It speaks to the physical sacrifice and mentality this team has. They are going to get into their opponents every night. Every game is going to be a physical fight and everyone around the league knows it now.

If there is some sign that the Magic will experience success in the Playoffs, it starts with this physicality.

The Playoffs are a more physical game and the Magic have already started to play that style. They have established they will be a team that hits first and embraces physicality. The magic are already playing a Playoff-style game.

dark. Next. Magic back to the paint 04.04.24. Orlando Magic have to get back to the paint to use 3-point gains

That is who this team is. And they will frustrate opponents with their effort, size and physical play. Wednesday was not an aberration clearly. That is who this team is.