Comparing any team to the steamrolling, historically dominant Golden State Warriors can be downright foolish, but the manner in which the Orlando Magic have turned things around – by playing through the pass, utilizing many of the same space-and-pace principles and switching everything defensively – it is, well, gulp, kinda, sorta, Warriors-like.
No, there’s no two-time Most Valuable Player to compare to Stephen Curry, no all-time great quite the caliber of Kevin Durant or a 3-point marksman as accurate as Klay Thompson.
Still, the Magic might be the closest thing in the NBA these days to replicating the manner in which the Warriors systematically pick foes apart. Pro basketball is very much a copycat league and who better to try and emulate than a Golden State team that has won two of the last three championships and is a heavy favorite to win it all again?
“That’s kind of what happens when a team wins in this league. You see them win and then you try and emulate that formula,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who watched the Warriors as a child while living in nearby San Jose, California. “Obviously, they’re good for a reason and they’re winning for a reason, so we like to play with pace and play that style. We do try to emulate that [Warriors style], but at the end of the day we’re our own team and we have our own identity and hold ourselves accountable to our standard.’’
Golden State (10-3) are a team of great pedigree, while Orlando (8-5) are very much an upstart hoping to someday be mentioned in the same conversation with a Warriors squad that could go down as one of the great dynasties of all time. Consider this season’s similarities between the Warriors and the Magic prior to the two teams facing off at Oracle Arena on Monday night:
The Warriors rank first in the NBA in accuracy from 3-point range (41.6 percent), while the Magic are a close second (40.6 percent).
Golden State are first in the league in assists per game (31.0), while Orlando are third (25.2).
The Warriors regularly batter foes in the third quarter, ranking first in the NBA in scoring (32.6 points on average) in that all-important time just after intermission. Meanwhile, the Magic have been nearly as dominant with their third-quarter production (29.8 points), good for second in the NBA.
And the similarities go on and on with the Warriors being just a tick better than the Magic in overall scoring (first and fourth), overall field-goal percentage (first and sixth) and 3-point makes per game (second and fourth).
“It’s been two or three years now where the Warriors kind of changed the NBA and everyone is trying to fit in and play like them,’’ Magic leading-scorer Evan Fournier admitted. “Playing with [multiple] ball handlers on the floor, playing with guys who can shoot, pass and cut and playing with rhythm and a great tempo – that’s how we’re trying to play now.’’
Magic head coach Frank Vogel said his team’s transformation to playing a style more similar to the one that the Warriors have dominated with came when his franchise dealt power forward Serge Ibaka to Toronto for swingman Terrence Ross last February. That transaction allowed Orlando to shift Gordon into a power forward role similar to that of Golden State’s Draymond Green, and it jumpstarted an offensive style centered around space, pace and playing through the pass. These days, Orlando are at their best when the ball is quickly whipping around the perimeter, shots are coming from wide-open players and open threes are preferred to point-blank looks that are contested.
“Changing the way that we play midseason last year was the first step in trying to hang with a team like that,’’ Vogel said, referring to the surging Warriors. “Obviously, they’re playing as well as anyone, [they’re] the best team in the world and the champs and we’ve got an opportunity to get a great win.
“That’s our ticket to success this season – playing with the pass, playing for each other and playing as a team – and it’s something we talk about every day. [The assist numbers] also mean we’re shooting the ball well, too. The pass makes the game easier and the guys, for the most part, have bought into that. There are still stretches where we abandon it, but it’s been pretty good so far.’’
Playing that way has already helped the Magic whip San Antonio and Cleveland – two franchises that the Warriors beat last spring en route to their championship. Early on, the Warriors seemed to have a bit of title hangover, slumbering into this season with a mediocre 4-3. Since then, however, Golden State have ripped off six straight wins – each by 17 or more points while lighting up the scoreboard to the tune of a whopping 122.8 points a night.
On Saturday, as the Magic were losing 125-107 in Denver in a game they were missing point guard Elfrid Payton and clearly fatigued from playing a night earlier in Phoenix, the Warriors outscored Philadelphia 36-21 in the third period and coasted to a 135-114 victory. Durant had 29 points, Curry racked 22 and nine assists, Thompson added 23 and four threes and Green did a little bit of everything with 10 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks. And here are the numbers that absolutely send chills through any defense: the Warriors shot 58.5 percent from the floor, 51.9 percent at the 3-point line and 31 of their 48 field goals came off assists.
Even for opponents on other teams, it is a beautiful brand of basketball to watch – that is, as long as it isn’t them getting gashed by the Warriors. Gordon deeply admires the Warriors, but also deeply wants to beat them come Monday night.
“It’s so selfless, everybody gets involved and everybody knows their role, everybody touches the rock and it seems like they have fun doing it,’’ said Gordon, who entered Saturday night on pace to become the NBA’s most improved 3-point shooter from one season to the next in league history. “We’re taking all action, so come Monday night we’ll be ready.’’
Vogel was ready to adapt the Magic to a style more like the one that the Warriors play following a 29-53 first season in Orlando last year. Shifting the multi-dimensional Gordon to power forward was a big step in the process, but the Magic’s moves to add versatile wings such as Jonathon Simmons, Jonathan Isaac and Ross provided a path for the Magic to play with more space and pace. Their abilities to shoot the 3-pointer and take it away by switching all pick-and-roll plays defensively have allowed Orlando to make major gains on both ends of the floor this season.
Over the summer, Vogel watched hours of footage from the Eastern and Western Conference playoffs last spring to pick up on nuances that the Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs and Celtics used in spreading the floor and battering foes with open threes and hard cuts to the rim. He also studied the Houston Rockets, a team that set NBA records last season for 3-point makes and takes in a season. What came out of those X-and-O study sessions was a style the Magic use now that sometimes closely resembles what the Warriors do with regularity.
“It’s hard to pick one focus, but on the offensive end with the way the game is being played, but one of the big takeaways that I’ve picked up, really, from watching the Boston-Cleveland series, was how little they force at the rim,’’ Vogel said. “Everything at the rim, if it wasn’t a clean look, it was an inside-out three. That’s why you see the 3-point shot being so prevalent right now. A one-on-two shot at the rim is not as good as an open three. That’s where our guys have seen some growth. And all of the details that go into switching everything [defensively] – that was the other area that I focused on.
“Part of [the change] is analytics-based and some of it is watching the great teams and how they play,’’ Vogel added. “And it’s always the great evolution and your defense has to adjust to having the right speed out there to switch things and keep up on the perimeter.’’
Making that change was something of a leap of faith for Vogel, who won big previously in Indiana with burly center Roy Hibbert and power forward David West protecting the rim and winning games in slow-down fashion. This season, several NBA coaches have been quick to point out Vogel’s adaptation to the NBA’s changing small-ball style.
“If you don’t change and adjust, the game will leave you behind and what Orlando have done speaks to Frank and his willingness to adapt,’’ Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone said on Saturday. “Also, as a smart coach who wants to win, you have to play to the strengths of your roster and Frank has done that. He has a lot of versatile, small-ball players who can get up and down, make plays and shoot the ball. That’s why they’re a fun team to watch.’’
Whether or not the Magic will be a fun team to watch while trying to take down the Warriors remains to be seen. Fournier said even if the Magic play their best basketball – like earlier this season when they made 17 3-pointers and led Cleveland by 37 points or gutted the Spurs in a game where the spread was once 36 points – it might not be enough if the Warriors are cutting, passing and raining in shots from all corners of Oracle Arena.
“When you play the Warriors, especially in Golden State, you want to have a great team performance,’’ Fournier said. “They play the right way and even if we play a really good game, if they start making shots there’s not a lot that we can do. So, we’re going to get in there and fight and see what happens.’’
By John Denton