Magic Hope to Pick Up Where They Left Off When Season Resumes

Magic won eight of 12 before season was paused
by John Denton

ORLANDO - Slightly more than four months ago, the Orlando Magic played their final game before the NBA’s stoppage and finished with flurry by rallying in the second half to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies for their third straight victory and eighth win in 12 games.

Now, following the longest midseason break in play in NBA history, the Magic are attempting to do the somewhat impossible by picking up where they left off in early March when they were arguably the hottest team in the league. That certainly won’t be easy after going some 16 weeks without playing competitively on basketball’s biggest stage, but the Magic do think they picked up some things from their strong finish in early March that will benefit them when the games start to count again later this month.

``We’re basically going from chilling to now we’re back in the (playoff) race, but I think everybody is going to be excited about the fact that we’re playing for something big now,’’ said shooting guard Terrence Ross, whose Magic completed their third straight day of practice inside Disney’s campus-style environment on Saturday. ``We’re all anxious to get back on the court, compete at the highest level, try and continue the run that we had going on and see if we can climb that ladder. We know what we’re getting ourselves into and we’re excited.’’

The Magic, who are still without standout point guard Markelle Fultz (excused personal matter) and an unnamed player (recent COVID-19 positive test), did more contact and three-on-three work in Saturday morning’s practice session. Since Thursday, Orlando has been using the ballroom of their Disney World hotel to squeeze in an additional nighttime, walk-through session that focuses mostly on defensive alignments.

Veteran point guard D.J. Augustin, one of the many driving forces on Orlando’s late-season success prior to the stoppage in play, likes where the team is so far in terms of its progress and he’s happy about the focus that the squad has brought to the two-a-day practices.

``I think we’re ahead (of where he thought they would be). Just with the way that we’re practicing, it looks like one of our practices before the hiatus,’’ said Augustin, who has averaged 10.4 points and 4.6 assists in 49 games this season. ``Guys look like they’re in good shape and dialed in. We’re all sore because we’ve been practicing and doing a lot of things the last three days, but just as far as us running offense and stuff, everybody looks to be on track and in that same rhythm that we had before the season ended. So, I’m excited about that as well.’’

Much like last season, when they went 22-9 down the stretch to qualify for the playoffs, the Magic found their most lethal and consistent stretch of basketball in late February and carried it into March.

Not only did Orlando (30-35) defeat Minnesota, Houston and Memphis prior to the stoppage in play, they strung together their best prolonged stretch after being slowed by injuries and inconsistencies early in the season. The Magic beat Atlanta and Detroit prior to the break for the NBA All-Star break and then strung together a 6-4 stretch over the next two-plus weeks that included stirring wins over Brooklyn, Houston and Memphis.

What was also different was the very look and feel of how the Magic played in their closing stretch before the league stoppage out of justifiable fears over the coronavirus pandemic. Almost inexplicably, a Magic team that struggled to score and shoot with much efficiency early in the season became an offensive juggernaut by greatly picking up their pace and attacking foes earlier in the shot clock.

In the 12 games prior to the stoppage of the season, the Magic offense shot up to first in the NBA in scoring (120.8), first in assists per game (32.1), first in field goal makes per game (45.1), second in field goal percentage (48.6 percent) and 13thin 3-point percentage (37 percent). Those are, of course, major improvements over the first 53 games of a choppy, up-and-down season where the Magic were mostly mediocre on the offensive end (103.1 points per game; 22.8 assists per game; 37.9 field goal makes a game; 43.1 percent field goal percentage; 33.4 percent 3-point percentage).

``We got a taste of (success), the rhythm that we can have and how we can play,’’ said reserve point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who had 20 points, three rebounds and two steals in the Magic’s win over Memphis prior to the stoppage in play. ``That’s what we’re trying to build back to, and it’s not going to be tomorrow, but it’s going to have to be sooner than we probably thought. We’re just taking it day by day and lock in because we want to get back to that feeling where we’re all in rhythm, we’re all playing together, we’re in sync on defense, we’re pushing the pace and we’re scoring from inside and out. Our goal is to get back to that and that’s where we want to be going into the playoffs.’’

Never one to be settled with the status quo, Magic head coach Steve Clifford studied hundreds of his team’s offensive possessions during the time off for the NBA All-Star break and determined with more pace and better screening that offense could potentially be much better. After seeing the dramatic impact that those changes had on the offense, Clifford turned much of his focus to the Magic’s defense during the time quarantined away from basketball.

Clifford went into the season with the belief that the Magic could be a top-five defensive team and that’s where he hopes the squad can get back to when the eight ``seeding games’’ begin on July 31 at Disney. Clifford’s insistence that the Magic improve defensively is a big part of the reason why the squad has been holding two sessions a day since Thursday.

``As (his players) know, our defense was not as good the last, really 12-to-17 games, so we’ve made adjustments there,’’ Clifford said on Saturday. ``Obviously, I’m not going to talk specifics (about the defense). But the emphasis on playing quicker and our screening being much better helped our offense. Those are some of the things that our film study as a staff helped us with, and we’re hoping to build upon it (when regular-season games begin again).’’

Augustin, a veteran of 11 NBA seasons, knows that even though the Magic are simply trying to get themselves back into game shape and back into a rhythm, the team is also thinking big-picture when it goes through two-a-day sessions now. Augustin said the Magic want to be hitting on all cylinders – much like they were in early March prior to the stoppage – by the time the playoffs begin on Aug. 17 at Disney.

``If we didn’t do (the night walk-through practices), we’d just be sitting in our rooms, so it’s good that Coach (Clifford) is getting us out of our rooms to walkthrough stuff,’’ Augustin said. ``We’re preparing for the playoffs and going over different scenarios that might against the Bucks, Toronto or whoever we may be playing. So, I think it’s a good thing that coach is doing (the two-a-days) with us and it’s helping us get back to that level where we were before the hiatus.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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