Kim Klement/USA TODAY
The Magic sit just four wins away from matching last year's record. A season that felt like it was falling even further off the rails than last year's 20-win struggle suddenly feels like it is exactly where the Magic were supposed to be. The team has shown gradual improvement and the ability to put things together.
No group has shown that more than the self-dubbed "Young Guns."
The difference in games during this stretch where the Magic have won four of the past six games has been a number of different things. The most visible, perhaps, is the energy gained from that second unit which features Victor Oladipo, E'Twaun Moore, Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless and Kyle O'Quinn.
They have brought something new to this team and it has permeated the identity of the entire team.
"Just energy. Young guys, young legs," Harris said. "No matter how tired we are on the floor, we're just pushing each other. Guys bring a consistent effort. Doron does a great job coming out there being aggressive. Moe Harkless is aggressive. Kyle is a vocal guy who is going to give us his all. Vic, that's self explanatory what he does on teh floor. It's a good combination and a good spark for us."
That was most evident in the win over the Pacers. When Harris checked in with 4:45 left in the third quarter, the Magic trailed by 15 points. When he left the game with 2:57 left in the fourth, Orlando led by five. That 20-point turnaround was not entirely from the second unit. Nikola Vucevic came in at some point and so too did Arron Afflalo. The bulk of that run came exactly from where the Magic want it -- their young players.
The lineup of Victor Oladipo-E'Twaun Moore-Maurice Harkless-Tobias Harris-Kyle O'Quinn has been one of the Magic's best lineups. The group has been on the floor for seven games and about four minutes. The results though have been pretty promising -- 59.9 percent field goal percentage, 118.5 offensive rating, 61.9 percent effective field goal percentage and a 60.9 percent player impact estimate.
The defense remains a concern -- a 109.4 defensive rating -- but even in this small sample size you can see good things happen when this group is on the floor. The pace quickens, the ball moves (60 percent assist rate) and the Magic get some energy.
Throw in a player like Afflalo for Harkless and the team seems to take a bit of a hit -- 97.7 offensive rating and a 99.4 defensive rating in 22 minutes over six games. Or replace Moore and Harkless with Nelson ad Afflalo and things look even grimmer -- 92.4 offensive rating, 108.5 defensive rating in 12 minutes over five games.
The three-man unit of O'Quinn-Harkless-Oladipo has played 189 minutes together and is posting a 100.9 offensive rating and a 101.9 defensive rating. The team is shooting a 50.5 percent effective field goal percentage with them on the floor at the same time.
The three-man unit of O'Quinn-Oladipo-Harris has played 112 minutes in 21 games together but have struggled statistically with a 91.2 offensive rating and 43.6 percent effective field goal percentage to go with a 99.8 defensive rating.
What becomes clear is that something has clicked with this group lately.
It is hard to say exactly what has clicked with this group. One thing that has been clear is that whatever has clicked has equaled wins for the Magic in this stretch.
Maybe it is a clarifying of roles or comfort on the floor together -- a lot of these guys spent almost the entire summer working out together and playing in Summer League -- or just the natural progression of young players. Something clicked. And it clicked mostly on defense.
"We just know what we have to do to go in there and be effective," Oladipo said. "We just go out there and the first thing we've got to do is play D. No matter what happens, whether we score or not. We have to let that create for our offense. When we get easy buckets, we make shots."
Oladipo added that there is an edge to this team right now. They are going out and trying to prove that they belong. The biggest difference for this unit is on the defensive end where they are clearly trusting each other more and playing with a whole lot more energy.
For Oladipo, it is about making it more consistent.
Jacque Vaughn said he is going to continue to put these young players in situations they can succeed and re-enforce the good things they are doing. He has probably let the unit ride a little longer than normal because of the trust and confidence they have built. They cannot quite play the entire half yet as Vaughn went back with his veterans late in Sunday's win over Indiana.
Harkless agreed that something is working and cited the fact this unit trusts each other. That allows them to play freer. The ability to get out on the run and turn that trust and energy into something else also helps a ton.
"We trust each other," Harkless said. "We trust each other a lot. We like playing with each other and that allows us to be aggressive defensively and take risks defensively and just get out and play fast. That's what we want to do, especially with that unit."
The pace is certainly an important part for this unit. These young guys are not the best at creating their own shot and so they are using their defense to generate fast break opportunities. That naturally adds energy to the team.
But to come back from a 17-point deficit in the second quarter against the Thunder and then again in the third quarter against the Pacers? That is an entirely different story for this group.
"A lot of energy," Jameer Nelson said. "They are outplaying other teams' second unit, a lot of teams' first units as well. They are playing with a lot of passion and a lot of energy and playing together."
Harkless said those efforts in making those comebacks only added confidence to this team. And, as Paul George said after his Pacers lost to the Magic, a team of young guys "trying to make a name for themselves" are "the most dangerous type of team."
That is exactly where the Magic want to be. As Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders wrote, there is a "swagger" about this team for the moment. Not something you would expect from a 16-win team sitting seven games out of the final Playoff spot. That confidence comes and goes until consistency becomes the norm. The Magic are not quite there yet.
This is quite obviously the group that is going to be part of the organization's future. This is the group the organization wants to see dominate and continue to improve.