With their 109-106 Tuesday win over the Portland Trail Blazers, the Orlando Magic are fully entrenched in the second half of their season.
Their first 41 games, in which they went 15-26, can be defined with many words or phrases, with the main one being patient progress.
Here’s how the Magic fared through the season’s first half and the factors that’ll make the final 41 games successful.
The Vitals (first 21 games):
- 5-16 record; 109.5 offensive rating (24th); 115.1 defensive rating (27th); minus-5.6 net rating (26th);
- 57.3% true shooting accuracy (17th — a formula that incorporates free throws and higher-value 3-point shots); 16.7% turnover frequency (29th); 28.6% offensive rebounding percentage (16th); 72.2% defensive rebounding percentage (15th)
The Magic’s record through the first quarter of the season reflected their player-availability issues.
Markelle Fultz missed the first 21 games because of a fractured left big toe.
Moe Wagner sat the first 18 games because of a sprained right midfoot.
Gary Harris suited up only for five of the first 21 games after having left knee surgery during the offseason. Cole Anthony played in four of the first 21. Paolo Banchero and Jalen Suggs missed seven games apiece while Wendell Carter Jr. sat for six as part of a month-long absence that ended in late December.
Their struggles with not having their top players in the rotation — especially the guards — consistently led to hardships on the court.
The Magic had ball-security issues, making it easier for opponents to score in transition. They kept games close but struggled to close them out, leading to a 3-11 record in games that had “clutch” minutes — when the scoring margin is within 5 points with five or fewer minutes remaining.
There were multiple individual bright spots from the season’s first quarter (Banchero, the emergence of Bol Bol and Franz Wagner), but the wins didn’t come often.
At least not until they got healthier.
“What we have to really look at is being able to evaluate when we have a complete roster,” coach Jamahl Mosley said. “We’ve had guys in, guys out. We’ve had different evaluations of what this team can be. When we have a full roster, it’ll be a little bit different to evaluate where we are.”
The Vitals (games 22-41):
- 10-10 record; 112.1 offensive rating (23rd); 114.2 defensive rating (16th); minus-2 net rating (21st);
- 57.6% true shooting accuracy (17th); 14.3% turnover frequency (15th); 26.6% offensive rebounding percentage (20th); 73.1% defensive rebounding percentage (12th)
The returns of Fultz and Anthony on Nov. 30 significantly altered the Magic’s season.
They’ve brought steadier ball-handling presences to the Magic, helping fix the turnover issues and reducing the on-ball responsibilities for Banchero and Franz Wagner.
The Magic rate around league-average since Fultz and Anthony came back. Orlando has been even better since their minutes restrictions were lifted — a 10-7 record from Dec. 5-Monday with an above-average defense.
They’ve locked in on their defensive gameplan of cutting off the interior, allowing just 43.5 points in the paint from games 22-41 (third-best mark during that stretch).
“We can handle adversity,” Mosley said when asked what he’s learned about the team. “The things that have happened throughout the year, the ups and downs, guys being in and out. We have a group of guys that’s resilient. They want to continue to learn, grow and work for one another.”
The Magic got the second half of the season started off on the right foot with the win over the Blazers to put them at 16-26 — 11-10 since the returns of Fultz and Anthony.
Since then, Carter, Harris and Suggs have returned from injuries, giving Orlando sparks in multiple areas, especially defensively.
The improved health has allowed Mosley to try out different lineups, including a starting group that may stick.
The quintet of Fultz, Harris, Banchero, Carter and Franz Wagner — the Magic’s starting lineup in the last four games — has a net rating per 100 possessions of plus-23.3 (127.1 offensive rating, 103.9 defensive rating). That’s the only Orlando lineup that’s played at least 50 minutes to have a positive net rating.
Continued individual growth by the younger players or overall steadier play won’t be the only factors that make the second half of the season successful. Cultivating more on-court continuity and finding more winning combinations will also be important.
“Just continue to grow,” Mosley said. “Continue to grow and get better. Create continuity with this group. Defensively, we talk about that being the place we want to hang our hat. Offensively, being able to share and move the basketball. We just want to continue to grow, get better and develop these young guys to be the best players they can be.”
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Khobi Price at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @khobi_price.