Playing at Faster Pace Will Be Key for Magic When Season Resumes

by John Denton

ORLANDO - As adept at self-scouting his own team as he is at scouting upcoming foes, Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford took advantage of the break for the NBA All-Star Game back in mid-February by analyzing his team’s own offense and coming up with subtle tweaks that made a world of difference.

Now, with the Magic and the rest of the NBA readying to restart following a three-month break because of the league’s suspension of its season in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, one can only imagine what adjustments Clifford has come up with for his team once basketball begins again. If the future fixes are as transformational as the ones that Clifford and his staff came up with over the All-Star break back in February, the Magic could be a team capable of some major late-season damage when the NBA returns on July 31 at Disney World.

At the time of the suspension of the NBA season, the Magic (30-35) had just started playing their best basketball. Winners of three straight, six of nine and eight of their last 12 games, the Magic changed the course of their season by making some simplistic changes to how they attack foes on the offensive end.

Clifford and his coaching staff used the All-Star break to determine that ``playing faster’’ could ultimately have a huge impact on the Magic’s offense. While that didn’t necessarily mean running and gunning more, it did equate to Orlando getting into its sets earlier, attacking quicker and staying aggressive throughout possessions.

Saddled with an offense that had badly lagged early in the season and ranked in the bottom-five of the NBA in most every major statistical category, Clifford knew something had to change on that end of the floor. What he and his staff came up with following ``a deep dive’’ of the team’s video footage during the All-Star break was the need to play with significantly more ``pace.’’

``That was one of the (objectives),’’ Clifford said of his team’s desire to play faster prior to the suspension of the NBA season. ``More pace – not necessarily up and down the floor – but quicker into offensive sets.

``One of the problems, if you look at when you shoot – particularly if you don’t have a breakdown player – you don’t want to get into that last six seconds (of the shot clock),’’ Clifford continued. ``If you look at our team, we need to get into offense quicker. So, that was one of the things that stood out to us when we were watching film over the break (for the All-Star Game) and it’s helped us.’’

Did it ever help them? In the 12 games prior to the stoppage of the season – eight of them victories – 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 13th in 3-point percentage (37 percent). Those are, of course, major improvements over the first 53 games of a choppy, up-and-down season (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).

``Offensively, we took a huge step in the last 10 or 12 games and it’s really helped our confidence,’’ said Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who thrived with the team playing through him more on the offensive end of the floor. ``We know that we’re a good defensive team and we can rely on that, but you’ve got to be able to score the ball, especially with the way that the game is going with a lot of high-scoring games. (Better offense) has really helped us.

``It just comes down to us playing the right way, making simple plays, playing for the next guy and everybody contributing in different ways,’’ the 7-footer added.

Advanced analytics show that the different ways that the Magic are attacking foes with more ``pace’’ has made a huge difference in their offensive attack.

In the first 55 games of the season, the Magic took 9.6 percent of their shots with between seven and four seconds left on the shot clock – the ninth most such attempts in the league. Over those first 55 games, Orlando attempted 8.5 shots and made only 40.6 percent of those attempts in what the NBA refers to as ``late’’ in the shot clock. In the 10 games after the All-Star break – and following Clifford’s period of offensive assessment – the frequency with which the Magic have taken shots ``late’’ in the clock (seven-to-four seconds remaining) has gone down to 7.2 times a game. Not only are they now shooting 44.4 percent on those tries, the number of attempts has plunged to the 22nd most in the NBA.

Similarly, the Magic are taking slightly fewer shots ``very late’’ in the shot clock (four-to-zero seconds remaining) – 7.7 percent frequency now as opposed to 8 percent frequency before.

Because the Magic are getting into their offensive sets quicker, attacking earlier and keeping defenses on their toes, larger chunks of their field goal attempts are coming earlier in the shot clock.

In the 10 games prior to the suspension of the season, the Magic took 12.7 percent of their shots (11.6 a game) ``very early’’ in the shot clock (22-to-18 seconds remaining). In the 55 games prior to the All-Star Game, only 10.7 percent of Orlando’s shots came ``very early’’ in the shot clock, a figure that ranked 29thin the NBA.

The Magic have also seen a jump in their shot attempts ``early’’ in the clock (18-to-15 seconds remaining). Whereas they took shots 17.3 percent of their attempts ``early’’ in the clock over the first 55 games, they attempted 19.7 percent of their shots in that same timeframe over the 10 games after the break. Then, there’s this: On shots ``early’’ in the clock in the first 55 games, the Magic made just 43.7 percent (28thin the NBA); in the 10 games after the break, they made 51.1 percent (fifth in the NBA) of the shots that came ``early’’ in the clock.

Throw in another big jump in accuracy on shots from 15-to-seven seconds remaining on the shot clock – from 43.6 percent accuracy (26thin the NBA) in the first 55 games to 50.3 percent accuracy (second in the NBA) over the last 10 games – and it’s easy to see why the Magic’s offense has suddenly started functioning at a much higher clip.

``I think it’s helped a lot,’’ Magic point guard Markelle Fultz said recently of his team attacking earlier in possessions. ``I think it just makes everything move smoother and it puts pressure on the defense. It doesn’t mean that you’ve got to shoot it every time, but it’s just about getting into our offense quicker and it makes the other team have to guard you because they never know what’s going to happen. The new model of the team, it’s been going good. Everybody has been trying to do that and I just think it’s going well.’’

From Feb. 9 to the March 11 stoppage in play, three Magic players – Vucevic (21.8 points per game), Terrence Ross (20.7) and Evan Fournier (20.2) – have averaged at least 20 points a game, while Aaron Gordon (17.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists) and Fultz (13.7 points and 7.0 assists on 52.2 percent shooting) have been at their do-everything best. Also, key reserves Michael Carter-Williams (8.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists) and D.J. Augustin (9.4 points and 3.9 assists) started to play significantly better.

Of course, the Magic’s stellar 12-game run prior to the stoppage also coincided with the introduction of forward James Ennis III, who was acquired in a Feb. 6 trade deadline deal with the Philadelphia 76ers. Clifford worked closely with Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond in acquiring Ennis III because of the potential impact he could have on the team with his versatility, toughness and experience.

In his 12 games with the Magic – the last 10 as a starter – Ennis had given Orlando better offensive spacing and more defensive versatility and toughness while he had averaged 6.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.1 assists.

``I think it starts with range shooting and he’s played enough in our league and in enough big games that they’re conscious of him and they’re not going to just let him catch the ball and not close out to him,’’ Clifford said of Ennis, whom he was alerted to by close friend and former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, who worked with the small forward while with the Pistons. ``The other part of it is the very nature of how he plays. He plays in a way that your team is going to function well. There’s an intangible there (with Ennis). … That’s the product of coaching, and those are the things that you are only going to know if you are around the player every day.’’

The big question for the Magic, of course, is whether they will be able to play with the same attacking style when basketball returns on July 31stat Disney World near Orlando. Tentatively, 22 teams – nine from the Eastern Conference and 13 teams from the West – are set to begin eight regular-season ``seeding’’ games on July 31. Potential play-in series for the No. 8 seed in the two conferences could follow. Then, comes the NBA’s usual postseason format with 16 teams and four rounds of best-of-seven playoffs action.

The extended period time off from basketball – when players and teams weren’t allowed to practice because of lingering health concerns – is certain to have a major effect on many teams. Clifford has had high words of praise for how his Magic players worked to stay in shape during the pandemic, and the group has been quite active in working out individually at the Amway Center once it was cleared to open.

Carter-Williams, who had scoring nights of 20, 16 and 17 points in the three games prior to the suspension of the NBA season, feels the Magic have established a baseline for how they need to play. He said recently that the team is well aware that playing with ``pace’’ is how the offense must operate going forward – an adjustment that the Magic hope will help them pick up right where they left off on March 10 and ultimately do some damage in the revised playoffs at Disney World in August.

``I think (playing faster) works in favor for all of us,’’ said Carter-Williams, whose season-high 20 points on March 10 helped the Magic win 120-115 in Memphis in their final game prior to the stoppage in play. ``We can always slow down, but it’s hard to speed things up in the middle of a game. But if we can create that base of always playing faster, we think it makes us a really good group that can give other teams lots of problems.’’

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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