The Magic have zigged when the rest of the leagues has zagged
Clinging to a tenuous six-point lead with under a minute remaining in the final frame last Monday night against the Cavaliers, Banchero and the Magic knew a trap was coming. Waiting for a help defender to spring into action from the weak side, Orlando's franchise cornerstone readied himself to deliver an outlet pass towards Franz Wagner that would force a rotation and allow the Magic a chance to score a bucket and seal the game with under 45 seconds left.
Instead, Cleveland's Dean Wade did a great job of bodying up the former top draft pick, forcing Banchero into a crouch to protect his dribble, while Donovan Mitchell positioned himself to block his passing lane near the logo. Springing the rock loose from Banchero, Mitchell promptly collected the loose ball and sprinted out into transition with a clear lane toward the basket and the chance to slim the lead to four.
Refusing to give up on the play, however, Banchero hounded the guard down the court, forcing Mitchell to hesitate just long enough before going up that Gary Harris had enough time to fly in and block the layup attempt.
A play later, Banchero would sprint into the open court off another errant Cavaliers shot attempt, finishing the sequence with a picture-perfect alley-oop pass to Jonathan Isaac for the score.
By the next sequence, the now desperate Cleveland squad scrambled to find a three-point attempt. Placing the ball in Darius Garland's hands, the Cavaliers sprang into action but were quickly short-circuited as the speedy guard failed to find a driving lane. Finally dumping the rock off to Isaac Okoro along the sideline, the Magic corralled the wing player and forced a turnover, with Suggs collecting the loose ball and firing it off to Wagner, who nailed the coffin shut with a thunderous slam.
In just under a minute of action, the Magic displayed all the traits that have made them the surprise of the season thus far: refusing to get beat at the point of attack, never giving up on plays, and finding opportunities to turn their suffocating defense into easy points on the other end.
Yet, far from being an unbalanced, defensive-first team that is reliant on turnovers to score points, Orlando has discovered new ways to generate offense around their generational (I said it!) star.
Take a look at this play from the third quarter of their match against Cleveland as an example:
The Cavaliers try a blitz similar to the one they succeeded with late in the fourth. This time, however, Cleveland does a poor job of disguising where the help is coming from, allowing Banchero to recognize the coming trap and allowing him the opportunity to spring the ball loose to Suggs along the baseline, who nails the triple.
It may not look like much, but the sequence is evidence of the type of maturity that the Orlando offense has come to play with, a key factor in not only allowing them to generate points at a league average pace, but creep up the conference standings.
Given that opponents recognize that Banchero likes to operate near the elbow, more and more teams have attempted to blitz the former Duke standout before he can get to his spot, forcing Banchero to give up the ball earlier in the shot clock in the belief that giving the Magic more time to operate without the forward handling the ball, is akin to providing them more rope to hang themselves.
Rather than panic, however, Orlando has learned to take the shots that are presented to them.
“You have to keep taking the shots that the defense gives you because now, if you don’t take it, you have now put yourself in a different situation, and that’s where turnovers happen because you are trying to force the game,” Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley said before his squad faced off against the Cavs.
Even, when Banchero can't get to his preferred passing spots, Orlando is learning that their sophomore star can find passing angles so long as they make themselves available.
In this action, Anthony Black hands the ball off to Banchero along the sideline as Cleveland floods the strong side with three defenders to harass the forward. Reading the defense, Black dives towards the rim, forcing Garland to abandon Wagner in the opposite corner to tag the Magic point guard, lest he receive the ball.
Sensing an opportunity, Wagner initiates a baseline cut with a clear lane towards the basket, receiving the ball from a backpedaling Banchero and scoring the bucket with a nice layup.