NBA

NBA PM: Magic Turning It Around?

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Much of the talk entering the season for the Orlando Magic centered around building one of the best defenses in the league. Now that a quarter of this NBA campaign is gone, it looks as though the team is finally holding true to the identity new head coach Frank Vogel envisioned.

While it took the bulk of the team’s 21 games to reach that point, the Magic’s defense is now among the best in the league. Over the course of the first three weeks of the season, the Magic’s defense was still in the bottom third of the league but it has improved drastically since that time.

The Magic were ranked 24th in defensive efficiency on November 15, but have put together the league’s best defense since that date. Playing such effective defense over the past three weeks has improved the team’s overall defense to third-best in the league. On the season, the Magic are allowing 100.8 points per 100 possessions. In addition, they have held 10 out of their last 11 opponents to under 100 points.

“We did make big improvements [in the past few weeks],” center Nikola Vucevic told reporters last night in Detroit. “Our team chemistry has grown. We’re starting to play more together. Defensively, we’re starting to trust each other more. The communication has been much better. We’re starting to get the schemes, [and] get more comfortable with each other and with the coaching staff.”

“We knew this was going to happen,” Serge Ibaka said of Orlando turning the corner. “It’s just about that time. We were just pushing and kept on working, but we believe in ourselves. We can do it.”

Last night’s 98-92 win over the Pistons was a very different outcome than the first time the two teams met back on October 28. The Pistons completely dominated the Magic from start to finish in that game en route to a 108-92 victory. However, the Magic clamped down defensively in the second half last night and held the Pistons to 37 percent shooting from the floor to help get their ninth win of the season.

The win over the Pistons continued what has been a strong showing for the Magic on their current five-game road trip. They opened the trip up with a win in San Antonio, where they hadn’t won since 2009. They suffered a one-point loss to the Memphis Grizzlies two nights later and then defeated the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday before knocking off the Pistons last night.

Given the way Orlando had been playing prior to the road trip, it seems reasonable to think most of the team would be very happy with a 3-1 record through their first four games on the trip. The Magic had lost four games in a row prior to the win against the Spurs, including three-straight at home.

“I think we stepped up our game,” Vucevic said. “We started playing together more. … I think it’s just a better effort overall. I think we’re growing as a team. We’re getting to where we want to be at. We just have to keep it up. We can’t get all happy about it. We have three wins out of our last four games, but we still got to keep working. We’re still under .500 so there is a lot of work to do.”

With their recent play, morale around the team seems to be much higher than it was just a week ago. During his postgame interview with reporters, Vucevic was seen on video joking around with some of his other teammates. Those sort of things generally don’t happen too often when teams are struggling to win games. Of course, the team still has a lot of work to do to be where they want to be.

“I’m excited about the win, but we’re still 9-12,” head coach Frank Vogel said. “I’m not happy about that and we got some ground to make up. We were certainly feeling a lot differently a week ago.”

The team’s improved play recently can likely be attributed to a drastic change Vogel made to the starting lineup. He opted to start D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo five games ago. The change sent Vucevic and Elfrid Payton to the bench. That lineup is now 3-2 in five games since the switch. While the change is still pretty new, Vogel likes what he’s seen so far.

“It’s only the fourth or fifth game in since we’ve [changed the lineup],” Vogel said. “Certainly, the things that I was looking to try to create have reaped benefits in terms of [Vucevic] helping out that second unit, changing the balance with that starting unit in terms of running the offense through Evan and a spot-up point guard [in Augustin] out there with him.”

What has also helped the Magic recently is there seems to be more ball movement. The team has struggled this season to manufacture points and is looking to further maximize their scoring opportunities with better ball movement. They’re currently ranked 29th in offensive efficiency, points per game and field-goal percentage, and they are 27th in three-point percentage.

“We’re hopefully starting to see the values of the pass on the offensive end,” Vogel said. “When we pass we have the good timing, good intent and good delivery, we’re going to shoot the ball better. We have guys who can make shots on this team. We showed that the last couple of games.”

“We just changed our mindset,” Ibaka added. “We know we are a defensive team. And then, on offense, we just changed our mindset, tried to play for each other. Moving the ball made games easier.”

Now, the Magic have won three out of their last four games and are looking to continue to improve. It seems as though the team’s chemistry is beginning to improve as the players get more comfortable with each other. There were a number of different new additions to the roster over the offseason and they look to finally be jelling.

Of course, playing well over a three-week stretch of time is by no means indicative of how the season will end, but it’s surely a good sign for the team. While there is still a lot of basketball left to be played, the Magic are hoping this stretch of improved play can help get their season back on track.

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About Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer entering his fourth season with Basketball Insiders. He covers the league out of Orlando and Miami, focusing on the Southeast Division.