Magic Now A Much Tougher and More Resilient Team

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By John Denton

Dec. 17, 2015

ORLANDO – Whereas in years past a loss as crushing as the one suffered last Friday – one that extended the Orlando Magic’s drought to three defeats in a four-game stretch – might have sunk them before, this is the team’s response now to adversity:

A 105-82 demolition of the Brooklyn Nets where the outcome was never in doubt after the midpoint of Monday’s second quarter; and then there was Wednesday’s work of art in which the Magic set season highs for shooting percentage (55.8 percent), 3-pointers made (14) and 3-point percentage (58.3 percent) in a 113-98 undressing of the vastly improved Charlotte Hornets.

Clearly, things have changed for a Magic squad that previously struggled to end losing streaks and bounce back from difficult defeats. Many of the core pieces from the past have returned this season, but the Magic (14-11) appear to be an entirely different team in terms of toughness, resiliency and competitive nature.

If you don’t believe that just by the way that Orlando responded to a rough stretch on Monday and Wednesday, absorb Channing Frye’s expansive summary of the Magic’s growth in a year’s time.

``It’s not the same team. And it’s not the same guys, I’m going to tell you that right now,’’ Frye said with conviction.

``This is a completely different group of guys in terms of understanding the game of basketball,’’ continued Frye, who scored 11 and 17 points in the past two games while making eight 3-pointers. ``Give a lot of credit to all of the guys for buying into what (Magic head coach Scott) Skiles wants. We’re a team now. I don’t know what we were last year, but we weren’t this. You look at it and we weren’t this. We won 25 last year and we’ve won 14 already this year, so it’s good ball that we’re playing. Regardless of whether we win or lose, guys are sticking together because we understand now how we need to play.

``We’re going to play a certain style. We believe in that and we believe in each other,’’ Frye added. ``We’re getting better and we’re starting to evolve. Last year is last year and this year we’re not even the same team. I like what we’re doing.’’

As the Magic head into Friday night’s game against rebuilding Portland (11-16) at the Amway Center, there’s certainly a lot to like about the way that they are playing now. Orlando came out of last Friday’s humiliating 111-76 loss to LeBron James and Cleveland vowing to change the way they were playing in hopes of solving its offensive woes.

Over the past two games, the Magic have gotten back to moving more within the offense and moving the ball from side to side and from inside to outside and it’s produced dazzling results. On Monday night, Orlando used 24 assists to yield 53.9 percent shooting, nine 3-pointers and 42 points in the paint. And Wednesday, the Magic used assists to set up their first nine baskets, 18 of the first 23 scores and remarkably 22 of 32 field goals at one point in the game.

``We talked about having some carryover with the way that we moved the ball in Brooklyn and we had that. We were seeing each other again and we were stepping into our open shots,’’ Skiles said. ``Sometimes it’s pretty simple – you shoot when you’re open and you pass when you’re covered. We did a good job of that.’’

Orlando had six players in double figures in Monday’s victory, all of them scoring between 18 and 10 points. On Wednesday night, all five starters and two reserves cracked double digits and nine players registered at least one assist.

For the season, five Magic players – Nikola Vucevic (15.5 ppg.), Evan Fournier (14.6 ppg.), Tobias Harris (14.2 ppg.), Victor Oladipo (13.7 ppg.) and Elfrid Payton (11.8 ppg.) – average double figures, while two others are a basket away and six players score at least four points a game. The Magic are 9-6 in games where at least five players crack double figures and 5-3 in games where six or more players score at least 10 points.

Clearly, Skiles has done a masterful job of convincing the Magic that the best way for the team to win is by sharing the ball and sharing the scoring load. From the time he was hired in late May, Skiles has wanted the Magic to use their youth, athleticism and speed to their advantage. And if the other team has no idea who to focus on trying to stop, all the better for a Magic team loaded with talent, explosiveness and depth.

``We’ve gone from a predominantly dribble-dominated offense to one where we’re trying to be more pass-oriented,’’ Skiles said. ``I’m sure somebody on our team would like to average 25 points a game, but this style spreads out our scoring. I’m sure the guys are still adjusting to it, but I feel like they are adjusting well.’’

Frye, who is a big part of what the Magic are trying to do offensively with his ability to stretch defenses out to the 3-point line, concurred, saying: ``I would want to play like this even if we had all-stars. This is the way that the league is going, being a guard-dominated league and a lot of college-style players. The league is a little bit younger now and everybody is running motion style offenses and running a lot of plays. … This is how we’re going to play and this is how we’re going to win.’’

Last season, Orlando returned from an encouraging 3-3 trip to the West Coast at 9-14, but it immediately suffered a heart-breaking, last-second loss to the Washington Wizards. That defeat inexplicably sent the squad into a tailspin where it lost seven of nine games. Orlando never recovered and limped to another disappointing 25-win season.

This time around, Orlando won the first two games of its longest road trip of the season to push its winning streak out to an impressive five games. However, the Magic then squandered a 10-point lead in the final five minutes of a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, outlasted Denver for an ugly win and dropped the finale on the trip in Phoenix.

Then, came the home stinker against Cleveland and the Magic appeared to be teetering again.

Frye, 32 and the Magic’s most veteran player in his 10th NBA season, has been extremely vocal of late as he sensed some slippage in the team’s intensity and its trust among one another. He said in some ways the ugly loss to Cleveland might have been good for the Magic because it jarred back into the focus where the team’s mindset needs to be.
And judging by the response in the wins against Brooklyn and Charlotte, clearly things are different this season as opposed to last season.

``It happens. You play 82 games and sometimes you are going to get your butt whooped. And I think that it was good for us,’’ Frye said of the Cleveland defeat. `` On that road trip I was yelling a lot because I felt like we weren’t appreciative of these opportunities to go out there and play. We didn’t have that grit. Skiles kind of imposes that onto us. We won (on a 3-2 road trip), but sometimes the best team doesn’t win every night.

``We just have to continue to play better and not be satisfied with this. We’re 14-11 – OK, I’ll take that after 25 (games), but we have to keep pushing, keep getting better and stay hungry.’’