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Topic Title: Orlando Magic 7 game winning streak...
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Created On: 11/29/2023 12:14 PM
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 11/29/2023 12:14 PM
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Central Floridave

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 11/29/2023 12:23 PM
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Central Floridave

Posts: 52264
Joined Forum: 07/22/2003

The Orlando Magic insist they're just starting to wreak havoc. They may be right
By Josh Robbins
Nov 27, 2023

ORLANDO, Fla. - Something is happening here.

The defense wreaks havoc. The players support each other with a rah-rah vibe you would find with a college team. And the victories keep piling up at a rate this sun-splashed but long-suffering fan base hasn't enjoyed in over a decade.

The Orlando Magic, precocious and hard-nosed, are the Eastern Conference's biggest surprise so far this season, a success story that rivals, and perhaps even surpasses, what the Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder are accomplishing out West.

"Stay tuned," said point guard Cole Anthony, the Magic's expressive and high-scoring sixth man. "We've got a lot more in store. This is just the beginning."

Anthony and his pals won their seventh consecutive game Sunday, overwhelming the Charlotte Hornets 130-117 with depth, deflections and youthful exuberance. Orlando improved to 12-5, tied for the league's third-best record.

A word of caution is appropriate here. No one should expect the Magic to continue to win 71 percent of their games. That would be an outlandish expectation. To put their hot start into perspective, remember that the reigning NBA champion Denver Nuggets, though dominant and blessed with superstar Nikola Joki? orchestrating their offense, won at just a 65 percent clip last regular season.

The Magic roster overflows with key contributors who remain at least a handful of years away from their primes. Power forward Paolo Banchero, fresh off his NBA Rookie of the Year season, is only 21. Forward Franz Wagner and guard Jalen Suggs are 22. Anthony is 23.

Their offense is hit-or-miss, as you would expect from such a young group. But perhaps no other team in the league plays as hard as the Magic do, especially on defense.

That is by design.

Two and a half years ago, with their team's potential capped at a mediocre level - not good enough to contend, not bad enough to win a top draft choice - the franchise launched a rebuild. The Magic traded away two-time All-Star center Nikola Vu?evi?, forward Aaron Gordon and steady swingman Evan Fournier on the same day in three separate deals. Coach Steve Clifford, frustrated that Vu?evi? had been traded and unwilling to participate in a total roster teardown, chose to leave.

President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman and then-general manager John Hammond prioritized drafting players with outstanding positional size and with defensive bents. Weltman selected Suggs fifth overall and Wagner eighth in the 2021 draft. Last year, they won the lottery and picked Banchero.

The executives hired a first-time head coach, Jamahl Mosley, to replace Clifford, and Mosley has fostered an esprit de corps not commonly seen in an NBA team. One of Mosley's first acts was to install a bell within the team's practice gym; whenever a player took a charge in practice or corralled a loose ball or blocked a shot or made a crosscourt pass, someone would ring the bell to acknowledge that winning play.

Slowly, methodically the lessons took hold for the players to take out of their back pockets whenever they most needed those lessons. Early last season, an avalanche of injuries caused the Magic to lose 20 of their first 25 games, but the team did not fracture. The rest of the season, in a sign of things to come, Orlando finished 29-28 and ranked sixth in defensive efficiency.

This season, the defense has been even more potent. The Magic rank third in defensive efficiency, first in turnovers forced per game and fourth in defensive-rebounding percentage even though starting center Wendell Carter Jr. has missed most of the team's games because of a broken left hand.

Asked to describe how his players have succeeded despite Carter's absence, Mosley answered, "We're going to make sure we protect the rim first, and we're sprinting around, flying around, making sure that every shot is contested."

No Orlando player has made bigger strides this season than Suggs, a 6-foot-5, 212-pound former high-school football star who plays basketball with the mentality of a ball-hawking free safety combined with a bruising middle linebacker. With Markelle Fultz sidelined by left knee problems, rookie Anthony Black now starts alongside Suggs; although Black is baby-faced, he is 6 foot 7 and has the makings of a defensive terror.

Perhaps no sequence illustrated the potential of the Magic's starting backcourt than the opening possession of their convincing win Friday over the Boston Celtics, the team with the league's best record.

The Celtics' Derrick White curled around a screen, only to have Black fight through the screen and then impede White's path through the paint toward the basket. Stymied, White then kicked the ball out to MVP candidate Jayson Tatum, and Suggs closed out hard to Tatum, preventing a 3-point attempt. So, Tatum drove into the lane and elevated for a short jumper, only to be confronted by Black and his outstretched left arm. Tatum missed the shot. It was the perfect combination of effort and positional size.

Had Black not been so tenacious, White likely would have launched a floater. If Suggs had not sprinted out to Tatum, Tatum would have hoisted a 3. And if Black were the size of a traditional point guard, Tatum likely would have scored on his short jumper.

Clifford, now the Hornets' coach, studied the Magic closely to prepare for Sunday's game, and Clifford said he saw parallels between the present-day Magic and the Byron Scott-coached New Jersey Nets of the early 2000s. Those Nets teams featured lockdown defenders Jason Kidd at point guard, Kerry Kittles at shooting guard and Kenyon Martin at power forward, all of whom could stop drivers in their tracks and rack up steals.

"There's not many places to go to attack somebody," Clifford said, describing Orlando's defense. "They're playing a lot of plus defenders, but also, they're great with their hands. I'd put Suggs at the top of that. He's the guy that has stood out to me compared to the other years."

Suggs validated Clifford's praise on Sunday, totaling three deflections, corralling two loose balls and drawing a charge, according to the league's tracking system, to go along with his 12 points.

Orlando has size almost everywhere - making its collective effort more effective. The starting frontcourt of Wagner, Banchero and center Goga Bitadze (or Carter, when he's healthy) all measure at least 6-10. Third-string center Moe Wagner is 6-11.

The X-factor is 6-foot-10 forward Jonathan Isaac, who may be Orlando's most talented defender but also has seen his career derailed by injuries. When Isaac plays, he can confound anyone he guards. On Friday, for instance, he guarded Tatum in limited minutes as effectively as anyone can guard Tatum.

What the Magic do not have much of - at least not yet - is long-range shooting. They have made just 34 percent of their 3s, the league's third-lowest percentage. But even that could be viewed as a positive; they're 12-5 even though they have shot so poorly, and eventually, their shooting could ascend toward the league average.

Orlando is a team that excels in rock fights, its players happy to grind out wins.

The Magic had not won seven games in a row since the 2010-11 season, when they won nine consecutive games with a starting lineup with Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, Brandon Bass and Dwight Howard and a bench that featured a washed-up Gilbert Arenas.

The 2023-24 Magic are younger but also much closer than their predecessors from 13 years ago. These days, players often leap up from their seats on the bench to cheer positive plays on the court. The oldest guy on the roster, 36-year-old free-agent signee Joe Ingles serves as a connector, team comedian and wise sage.

"It's super fun, man," Banchero said. "Coming from a college team and entering your first year, everyone tells you the NBA is a business and you'll never get to experience a team aspect; it's rare in pro sports just because everybody has millions of dollars and everybody's living their own life. But here, it's really like a college team."

The team's downtown arena, Amway Center, has in most seasons had all the ambiance of a mausoleum.

That, too, is changing.

On one of the final possessions Sunday, as Suggs held the ball to whittle seconds off the clock, fans rose to their feet and gave the team a standing ovation.

It may have been a sign of many standing ovations to come.

"We're playing for something," said swingman Gary Harris, who, at 29, is the team's second-oldest player. "We all have the same goal: We want to get back to the playoffs. That's a realistic goal for us."

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