There is a formula to beating the Orlando Magic, unfortunately.
While the team has greatly improved offensively from years past -- even though there is still a lot of work to do -- the best way to beat the Magic is to jump on them early. It is to get the team down big, usually with a barrage of threes and watch the team struggle to climb its way back into the game.
As improved as the offense might be, the Magic are still not a team that can face a big deficit. They are still a young team that can let their offense affect their defense. They are still prone to trying to make home run plays and that only gets them further in the hole.
That makes it all the more important for the Magic to get off to a good start. It is why the Magic have to set up their usually killer bench lineups
Orlando's starting group has had its ups and downs this year. And the Magic are still learning how to harden their identity and make it consistent throughout the game.
"I think for any run and any part of the game, you need to play good defense and string a couple of stops together," Franz Wagner said after practice on Dec. 13 (before the team's weekend set with the Boston Celtics). "Most of the time, that's when you get some momentum and get some easy looks. Obviously, when you make a run, you hit a couple in a row too. It starts with your focus and your effort on the defensive side."
That is undoubtedly still the struggle for the team overall. Young teams have to learn consistency and weathering the ups and downs of a game.
That is what makes getting out to a strong start all the more important for this team. Their ability to win first quarters is essential to their victories. This is simply not a team that can make up ground quickly.
The Magic are 11th in the league in first-quarter net rating at +2.1 points per 100 possessions. They have a below-average (even for the Magic) 109.6 offensive rating in the first quarter. They are certainly more focused on building their defense with the starting groups they have put out.
In December, that net rating has dropped to 24th in the league at -11.5 points per 100 possessions (107.5/119.0 offensive/defensive rating split). Orlando is 5-6 in December nonetheless and those numbers are weighed down heavily by blowout first quarters to the Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers.
In those two losses specifically, the Magic could feel how their poor starts ended any chance to a win -- even if those were extreme examples.
"I think we need to start a lot better," Banchero said after the loss to the Cavaliers. "Both against Brooklyn and [Cleveland], the first quarters killed us. I think after the first quarter we played fairly good today. We just can't go down 20 like that. That's very hard to come back from. Especially when you've got guys on the other side who can control the game and score whenever they want."
That is the message for the team and they saw that as a big reason they were losing games earlier this month. It is something the team still has to get right.
The Magic are a team that has still figured a lot of things out. But they have to be more consistent to start games.
That begins with the starting lineup.
Orlando's most used lineup is the starting group with Anthony Black and Goga Bitadze. That group has dropped to -9.7 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter with a 96.6 offensive rating. Through Dec. 1 and the nine-game win streak, it was at -10.7 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter.
For the entire game and season, that group has a net rating of +5.1 points per 100 possessions. This starting group simply was not getting the team off to a good start consistently.
Trying the starting group with Wendell Carter since his return and the Magic have a net rating of +28.6 points per 100 possessions with an 86.2 defensive rating in just 13 minutes. That is a small sample size, but the Magic have gotten off to better starts.
They just have not been able to maintain it.
If it feels like the Magic are not dominating games in quite the same way, it is because they are not. And that has left the Magic vulnerable to trying to come back and make up ground.
The bench has been good enough to do this for the most part. But even that has sen some lagging.
The Magic are constantly playing an uphill battle to make up for their lack of three-point shooting. Starting in a hole or digging themselves a hole is going to be an issue this team has to resolve.
There is an expected change to the starting lineup coming. Wendell Carter has returned from his hand injury and Markelle Fultz is working his way back from his knee injury. The team will likely return to its opening night starting lineup sooner than later.
That group still ranks highly among Magic lineups this season -- +10.4 points per 100 possessions (105.4/95.1 split) in 78 total minutes this season and +25.2 points per 100 possessions (96.8/71.7) in 28 first quarter minutes. If the Magic feel like they are still a sleeping giant, it is because they feel this lineup can be successful and just needed time to get the offense right.
Getting off to fast starts is still an important goal for this team and an important part of the equation for the team. The Magic, at the very least, cannot play themselves out of games early in the year.
The starting group for the Magic certainly lost its luster by the end of the win streak. The team was probably due for a chance once they hit that rough patch or for their regular starters to get healthy.
Now that the Magic are getting healthier, the team can see if their starting group works well and see how far it can take them. It needs to get rhythm and some time to breathe first.
The goal though for the Magic remains the same. They have to be healthy and they have to get off to good starts to maintain their intensity and give their offense a chance to succeed.