The Orlando Magic’s new rotation brought with it the promise of balancing the lineup. In a short time, the Magic are finding out how powerful their depth is.
A week ago, Nikola Vucevic addressed the media following a disappointing loss to the Milwaukee Bucks at Amway Center. He had come off the bench for the first time all season in a surprising rotation change by Frank Vogel. The loss stung and seemed to invalidate the decision.
Nikola Vucevic was not thrilled about coming off the bench. He spent all summer saying he would remain the starter and winning that spot. He had done what was asked of him and was playing well. Yet, he took a demotion.
And he took it in stride.
The Orlando Magic needed a change to balance their lineups. They needed to find the right combinations and unlock the power of their roster. Orlando has not found the right combinations. Vucevic’s move to the bench was part of that experiment.
And it is largely an experiment that is working. The Magic have won three of four games on the road trip. Vucevic has been tearing things up off the bench.
Add in Elfrid Payton going up against backup guards, Jeff Green providing some balance and Jodie Meeks spreading the floor now that he is back. The Magic are suddenly a deep team, changing games at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters.
That was the case Sunday against the Detroit Pistons in a 98-92 win at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
Orlando struggled for much of the first quarter and could not get its defense straight. The team rallied to get to within six by the end of the quarter. To start the second quarter, the temperature of the game changed.
Orlando’s second unit overmatched Detroit’s second unit. The Magic were the more aggressive and assertive team. They did not blink defensively. They simply had more weapons.
The Magic won the second quarter 35-23, taking firm and full control over the game. The Magic attacked and defended and ripped the Pistons apart in this moment.
Their depth was key to turning the momentum. The starters came in to finish things off with a six-point advantage in the final minutes before halftime to secure an eight-point lead.
The fourth quarter was much the same. The advantages were not huge. But for the first time in seemingly five years, the Magic’s bench is not the weak link. It is consistently the point where the team turns the tide and finds energy.
Frank Vogel’s lineup shuffle has enabled the Magic to unlock their full depth.
Sunday night, the Magic got 45 points off the bench. Vucevic scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Jeff Green added 14 points. Jodie Meeks scored seven points, making three of his eight shots in his second game back from injury. Elfrid Payton scored eight points.
The Magic’s second unit of Elfrid Payton, Jodie Meeks, Jeff Green, Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo went +3 to start the second quarter and +1 to start the fourth quarter. Meager numbers, for sure.
No one from the Magic’s bench had a plus/minus lower than +7. Orlando may not have won the game off its bench. But the team changed the momentum.
Vucevic was his typically aggressive self. Since the move to the bench, he is averaging 15.0 points per game and shooting 46.4 percent from the floor. All are up from his season averages as a starter.
He has poured in points over and over, mixing in his post ups with expanded range while dominating the glass. Vucevic is feasting on second unit bigs and the confidence translates when he plays against starters like Andre Drummond.
Green too has found a rhythm.
After struggling in his starting role, he has averaged 12.5 points per game while shooting 47.6 percent. For all of Green’s inconsistencies, he can still be effective scoring in isolation. A skill the Magic are still short on.
His first half, where he scored 12 points on 5-for-5 shooting, was better than his second. That showed his streaky nature, which was also displayed in the fourth quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies as the Magic built their lead.
Meeks has re-entered the rotation and been a huge spark as a jump shooter. Teams have to respect his shooting and he has delivered with some strong 3-point shooting.
He clearly has to get his legs under him still, but he is proving to be better off the dribble than perhaps believed in addition to his strong spot-up shooting.
Payton too has thrived off the bench. His scoring average has dropped to 7.8 points per game (expected with fewer minutes), but his field goal percentage has shot up to 45.9 percent. He is scoring 11.0 points per 36 minutes (down from 12.9 as a starter) and dishing out 5.3 assists per 36 minutes (down from 6.7 as a starter).
Even with these statistical decreases, Payton may very well be playing better subjectively. He has done a better job getting into the paint and initiating the offense. The second unit has thrived for it.
In 23 minutes together, the new second unit of Payton, Meeks, Green, Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo has a 108.1 offensive rating and 98.9 defensive rating. They score efficiently and with the pass — using a 68.4 assist rate.
That is a small sample size. But it suggests this unit takes advantage of the minutes it has and plays the style Vogel wants. It certainly changed the energy of the game Sunday. Just as it did in previous games.
Orlando has tried to build depth before. The team has struggled to do so.
With the way the last few games have gone and how the Magic have turned things around on the road, the bench has played an important part. A game-changing part.