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Surging Orlando Magic finally showing off their consistent side

Surging Orlando Magic finally showing off their consistent side
Orlando Magic power forward Aaron Gordon (00) said players have been "stepping up to their capabilities" during the team's recent run of success. The Magic have won five straight and seven of their past eight. (Willie J. Allen Jr./AP)

The Orlando Magic came back from a six-game road trip in early January with a 1-5 record, a bucket full of missed opportunities and more talk about finding consistency.

The trip started with a 125-100 loss to the Charlotte Hornets before a 28-point win over the Bulls in Chicago.

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Then came the missed opportunities. The Magic dropped four straight games against Western Conference opponents, wasting double-digit leads during three of those losses.

What if the Magic had won those three games?

Instead, Orlando tumbled seven games below the .500 mark after the woeful stretch and once again began looking for the consistency they needed to win.

Fast-forward to mid-February.

The NBA season has reached the all-star break, and the Magic are playing their best basketball of the season — and arguably the best in the league.

They have won five straight and seven of their past eight. The Magic have piled up those wins in impressive fashion, with an average margin of victory of 22.8 points — by far the most in the NBA in that stretch.

The Magic are no longer squandering leads. They’re closing out games.

On Thursday, the Magic (27-32) methodically built a double-digit lead against the Hornets and kept padding it through halftime. By then, Orlando was up 71-36 and the game was all but decided.

The Magic prevailed 127-89.

They played with the confidence and consistency that largely has eluded them for most of this season.

“I think we’ve just been consistent with everything that we’ve been doing,” Magic all-star center Nikola Vucevic said of the win streak after Thursday’s game. “All season long we’ve had stretches during games where we played great and we had stretches where we’d just throw it all away. I feel like these games we build the lead and we hold onto it and sustain it, or build it even higher.

“So just the consistency on both ends of the floor, and understanding that this is the way we have to play and we stuck with it. It’s been a really good stretch for us, [and] now we have to keep it up.”

The 38-point margin of victory was their largest of the season and biggest ever against the Hornets. The previous high was 32 points set on Jan. 5, 2007.

The win also snapped a 13-game losing streak to the Hornets and was unprecedented in another way. It gave the Magic back-to-back victories by 30 points or more for the first time in franchise history.

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Orlando had beaten New Orleans 118-88 two days earlier.

I think we’ve just been consistent with everything that we’ve been doing.


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That victory capped off three straight road wins during which the Magic also pulled off some more unprecedented work. The franchise had never posted three consecutive road victories by at least 16 points.

A theme appears to be developing here.

“We’ve definitely found a way to come together,” second-year Magic forward Jonathan Isaac said after Thursday’s win over the Hornets. “I don’t know exactly what it is or what has ignited this stretch in us, but it’s hopefully something that can continue to be here and be part of this team.”

Power forward Aaron Gordon said one reason for the team’s recent success stems from peak performances throughout the lineup.

“People are really stepping up to their capabilities,” he said Thursday. “To a man, everybody’s playing how they should be playing, how they know they can play.”

Topping that list is Isaac.

During the five-game winning streak, he’s averaging 15.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocks while shooting 50.9 percent, including 40.7 percent from the 3-point line. Aside from rebounding, those numbers are well above his season averages in those categories.

“We have a number of guys who are playing at high levels,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said after Thursday’s win. “You know, like Jonathan, obviously, is just, I mean he’s getting better and better.”

Still, a five-game sample doesn’t get the Magic where they want to go this season (the playoffs) or prove they belong in a conversation about the elite teams in the league. But it does show a team that is executing its purpose of play — a component Clifford has emphasized this season — and what it’s capable of when doing so.

“I just think we’re playing the right way now,” Magic point guard D.J. Augustin said on Thursday. “We’re buying into the defensive strategies that coach has been preaching to us all season, and we’re trusting each other.”

Point guard D.J. Augustin, middle, said the Orlando Magic have all the pieces they need to give themselves a chance to win every game, and that's a formula for reaching the playoffs.
Point guard D.J. Augustin, middle, said the Orlando Magic have all the pieces they need to give themselves a chance to win every game, and that's a formula for reaching the playoffs. (Tyler Kaufman / AP)

The Magic’s surge has positioned them just three games out of the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference, one game out of seventh and half a game from eighth. They plan to continue their playoff push and insist their work is just beginning.

“We have everything we need in this locker room to compete and go out and give ourselves a chance to win every night and possibly make the playoffs. That’s our goal right now,” Augustin said. “I think we’re all locked into that because we see the light at the end of the tunnel, so we’re just really focused right now.”

Thursday’s dominant effort marked another step in the progression of this team as it continues to play at a high level at both ends of the floor.

Let’s start with the defense.

Over their past five games, the Magic are first in the NBA in defensive rating (95.6) and blocked shots per game (7.6), and have held opponents to 39.6 percent field goal shooting and 28.1 percent 3-point shooting. Those also top the NBA in that stretch.

In addition, the Magic are second in fewest opponent points per game (96.0), opponent field goals per game (36.6) and opponent 3-point field goals per game (8.6); and fifth in fewest opponent free throws made (14.2) and attempted (17.8) per game.

They also rank first in rebounds per game (51.0) in that same stretch.

“We’re tied together defensively,” Gordon said.

While it came in a loss, Isaac exemplified the type of effort Orlando has been applying to the defensive end.

With Oklahoma City holding a seven-point late in their Feb. 5 game against Orlando at Chesapeake Energy Arena, Thunder forward Paul George caught a pass beyond the 3-point line, with Isaac close behind.

George took two dribbles to his left and tried to rub Isaac off a pick set by Steven Adams, the Thunder’s 7-foot center. But as George rose up to shoot, Isaac glanced off Adams to close in on the shooter. Isaac extended his left arm toward the ball in an attempt to block the shot, a move that seemed unlikely he could pull off without fouling.

The shot never left George’s hands as Isaac knocked the ball away.

In the ensuing scramble for the loose ball, George was whistled for a foul against Isaac, whose athleticism and determination led to a Thunder turnover.

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That type of defensive energy has helped the Magic climb to sixth in the NBA in opponent points per game (106.3) and ninth in defensive rating (105.9).

On Thursday, they held Hornets guard Kemba Walker, who came into the contest with five straight 30-point games, to 10 points. They also limited the Hornets to 35.1 percent shooting overall and 12.9 percent from the 3-point line. It was a season-low for 3-point shooting percentage by a Magic opponent.

In addition, the four 3-pointers made by Charlotte tied its low for the season.

Turning to the offense, the Magic are sharing the basketball consistently and doing a better job of taking care of it.

Against the Hornets, the Magic recorded 32 assists on their 48 field goals and committed a season-low six turnovers.

The Magic have averaged just 10 turnovers a game during their winning streak and have posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.88 per game, best in the NBA in that stretch.

In their past five contests, the Magic rank fifth in the NBA in field goals (44.4), 3-point percentage (39.8 percent) and assists (28.8) per game; ninth in field-goal percentage (48.8 percent) and 10th in 3-pointers per game (12.8).

The Magic knocked down 17 3-pointers against the Hornets on Thursday.

“I think that we’re making less mistakes, [and] we’re giving fewer possessions away,” Clifford said Thursday.

And that formula of limiting turnovers, sharing the basketball and getting good shots is apparent. In the past six games, the Magic have matched or established season-highs for points in a half three times.

It started with their Feb. 5 game in Oklahoma City as they posted 69 points in the first half to surpass their previous season high of 68. The Magic then posted 71 points in the first half against the Timberwolves on Feb. 7. Thursday against the Hornets, they matched it with 71 first-half points.

If the Magic continue to display the same consistency that has fueled their five-game winning streak, first-half point totals will be the least noteworthy accomplishment.

rparry@orlandosentinel.com

On Twitter @osroyparry

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