In a month full of up-and-downs, the Orlando Magic put together a marquee win at precisely the right time. A Phoenix Suns team, fresh off a loss to the Indiana Pacers despite superstar guard Devin Booker scoring 62 points, was heading to Orlando looking to blow off some steam.
For a good while, it was shaping up to be another one of these games for the hometown Magic: semi-competitive first half but a struggle to keep up as the lid on the rim for the Magic left them behind excellent scorers putting up legendary numbers in the second half.
The Suns, featuring three of this generation's all-time scorers -- Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal -- connected on 18 of their first 24 shots and built a 13-point lead by the start of the second quarter.
A single-digit lead for opponents have not been too favorable for Orlando.
The Magic came into this matchup losing six of their last nine games and 11 of 18 since the beginning of the calendar year. The early season success had worn off.
Teams figured them out. Run them off the line and shoot them out of ball games. And for a team ranked in the bottom five in fourth-quarter scoring, this was not a game the Magic had high hopes for once the final 12 minutes started.
Until the team rolled out their Monstars-like closing lineup. 6-foot-4 Markelle Fultz, 6-foot-10 Paolo Banchero, 6-foot-10 Franz Wagner, 6-foot-10 Jonathan Isaac and 6-foot-11 Moe Wagner. It is a massive finishing five, complete with length, quickness, and switchability on defense.
The result of this astronomically large group? An eight-minute stretch holding Phoenix to zero made field goals and a 21-2 run that broke the game wide open in a 113-98 Magic win. After scoring 41 through 3 quarters, Orlando held Booker to three points in the fourth.
As coach Jamahl Mosley put it, it was one of the most impressive defensive quarters he had seen. Suns coach Frank Vogel could only sigh after the game and say no one in the league can put out a defensive lineup like this.
Isaac concluded after the game that when the team is dialed in and playing on a string, no one can score on them. At least no one can score on him because he said he forgets all the times they do.
With plays like this, you kind of believe him.
This is Orlando's calling card. This is the peak of what this team could do.
Rolling out a huge lineup is not going to work every single time -- each team presents different matchups and focus points for the Magic's best defenders. But the identity of the team that has been showing up for the team's biggest wins all season long came alive again.
Orlando still ranks fifth in the league in defensive rating, giving up 111.5 points per 100 possessions. That has been a constant, and teams have always been aware they could put up showings like they did Sunday against Phoenix.
But this team has struggled. An early season 2-seed turned play-in warriors have dealt with the usual difficulties a young roster would.
Inexperience in close games has lost them some very winnable games. Poor shooting has done the same. But the constant has always been this team's defense. From both the starters and the second unit, this is a team built with defense at the top of mind, and it thrashed one of the league's top offenses.
This is not the first time, either. Orlando has knocked off the Indiana Pacers (first in team points per game) twice, Milwaukee (second) once, Boston (fourth) once and Atlanta (fifth) once. They held those teams to an average of 104.5 points per game in those Magic wins.
The Magic's roster is constructed to guard every position on the floor.
Isaac has finally been let loose and can lock up any team's best player. Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner are above-average defenders on the perimeter and in the paint. Jalen Suggs is a tone-setter at the top, perfectly shown by the eight-second violation he forced on Devin Booker in the second quarter Sunday night:
This play is the microcosm of the Magic's biggest strength. They are pests. They are dominant on defense. And they can shut down great scorers in an offense-minded NBA.
At the same time, the other side of the ball is where the Magic's kryptonite lives.
Keeping up with all-time scorers has been a struggle in Orlando, especially when the three is not falling. Phoenix shot a putrid 4 for 14 from deep against Orlando - compared to 12 made threes for the home team (the first time since the Jan. 17 loss to Atlanta that the team outpaced its opponents in threes).
The Magic needed their defense to feed the fast break and boost the offense. Too often, the offense acts as a drain on the defense.
In a seven-game playoff series (providing Orlando fights through the play-in or snags the sixth seed), they will have to face one of three top scorers in the league in the first round: Boston's Jayson Tatum, Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo or Philadelphia's Joel Embiid. Antetokounmpo and Embiid have gone for 60-plus points this season, whereas Tatum (season-high 45) has a host of scorers alongside him and is a matchup nightmare for the league.
Orlando has the makeup to cause some damage in the postseason. Banchero continues to shine (he is averaging 27/7/6 since Jan 1). Wagner is back from injury and is playing well in his return.
But for the team ranked 25th in scoring, keeping up with high-volume scoring teams, especially if they are shooting well from deep, will be the big hurdle for Orlando to get over if they are going to make noise for the remainder of the regular season and itnto the postseason.
The Magic's defense can certainly take this team far. It keeps them in games. What was different is Orlando was able to hit timely shots and use the defense to spark the offense. The Magic stuck to their defense to give them a chance to win.
It came through Sunday. But the Magic will need balance when the postseason approaches.