Teams with a losing record normally do not draw much positive attention, but in the case of the Orlando Magic, some silver linings surround the package. Orlando is 7-8 heading into Friday night’s game with the Milwaukee Bucks, but few outside of first-year Coach Scott Skiles and his team thought this team would be competitive early into his tenure.
The first six games on their schedule were loaded with playoff teams. They lost their opener to Washington by one point, suffered a two-overtime loss at Oklahoma City and 5-point setback at Chicago to go 0-3.
After breaking through at New Orleans, the Magic dropped another overtime game in Houston. The last of the killer six-pack was a home game against the Toronto Raptors that may have unveiled the mentality of this team.
Orlando defeated the Raptors, 92-87 at the Amway Arena on Nov 6. That game started a streak where the Magic won four of five games. Two winnable games, beginning Friday with the Bucks and Sunday with the Boston Celtics, precede a five-game road swing through the Western Conference.
Long range success starts with defense. The Magic rank sixth in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage, allowing opponents to convert 43.8 percent of their attempts. Last season, opponents shot 46.3 percent.
The opposition is shooting 35 percent on three-pointers, the ninth-best in the league. Last year, they were next-to-last at 37 percent.
Good defense can also lead to extra offense by creating easy baskets. Last season, Orlando was 25th in the league, scoring 95.7 points per game. Through the first 15 games against a number of quality opponents, they have improved to 16th in the NBA, averaging 100.5 points.
Skiles is known as a coach who not only preaches, but demands, defense. He was also known for his toughness when he played for the Magic and other NBA teams.
As a coach, his teams have taken on his personality. Phoenix, Chicago and Milwaukee all played intense, hard-nosed basketball when he led the team. The same is taking hold in Orlando.
“To be honest, I really love his toughness,” said forward Evan Fournier, quoted on the team’s web site. “The way he talks to us, the way we practice – I just love his toughness and I’m very happy to play for him.”
It shows in the stat sheet. Fournier has averaged less than 10 points during his first two seasons in the league, but is leading the team in scoring with 17.7 points per game this season.
Scoring is up from Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic. Fournier, C.J. Watson, Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton each average at least one steal per game. If the Magic can avoid the costly injuries to key players for long periods of time, they have an opportunity to be the surprise of the NBA at the end of the season, not just the first 15 games.
It will be Skiles job to keep reminding them that defense wins games.