Young Orlando Magic are off to an impressive start thanks to their commitment to defense

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Orlando Magic's Paolo Banchero (5) looks for a shot against Memphis Grizzlies' Santi Aldama (7) during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference standings will face off this week when the Boston Celtics host a pair of games against the … Orlando Magic?

No, that’s not a misprint.

After a 104-94 win over Cleveland on Monday night, the Magic are tied for second place in the East with Milwaukee, just a game behind the Celtics. Orlando announced its presence with a nine-game winning streak that began in mid-November — a run that included wins over Denver and Boston — and now the Magic will take on the Celtics again Friday and Sunday.

“We don’t want to be the doormat anymore, and a team that people talk about as, ‘It’s just the Orlando Magic,’” guard Jalen Suggs said. “We want to be that tough team, and you’ve got to scout and bring full mental energy and physicality when you come play us.”

Orlando hasn’t made the playoffs since 2020, and even that doesn’t totally tell the story of the franchise’s recent futility. The Magic haven’t won a playoff series since 2010, when Dwight Howard led them back to the conference finals a year after Orlando reached the NBA Finals for the second time in franchise history.

Since Howard left in 2012, the Magic have managed only one winning season, when they went 42-40 in 2018-19.

There were some positive signs a season ago, when they went 34-48 for a 12-game improvement. That still wasn’t enough for even a spot in the play-in round, but Orlando has taken another big step with a young core of players that continues to grow together.

The team’s starting lineup includes four players age 22 or younger. All were recent first-round draft picks.

Unlike successful Magic teams in the past, there’s no megastar like Howard or Shaquille O’Neal. But Orlando did have the No. 1 pick in the draft in 2022 and took Paolo Banchero of Duke, who won Rookie of the Year honors. This season, the 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 20.7 points per game, narrowly edging out Franz Wagner — the No. 8 pick in the 2021 draft — for the team lead.

Suggs was the No. 5 pick in 2021. Guard Anthony Black, the No. 6 pick this year, has made 17 starts as a rookie.

This collection of youth has, to this point, formed one of the league’s top defensive teams in 2023-24.

“We have fun playing defense,” Suggs said. “Everyone does it and everyone’s buying into it.”

Third-year coach Jamahl Mosley’s team is third in the league in defensive rating. The Magic’s big winning streak began when they held Chicago under 100 points in back-to-back games. That’s a feat they repeated in their most recent two games, when they beat Detroit 123-91 and then held Cleveland to 94 points.

The Cavaliers led at halftime before being held to 15 points in the third quarter.

Orlando’s winning streak equaled the longest in franchise history and helped Mosley win Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honors. The Magic have taken advantage of games against the league’s weakest teams. The last three wins of their streak were against Charlotte and Washington. But before that, Orlando beat defending champion Denver 124-119, then topped Boston 113-96.

The victory over the Celtics gave the Magic a 3-1 record in the NBA In-Season Tournament, but that wasn’t enough to advance from the group stage. Boston ultimately beat out Orlando with superior point differential.

Also included on the Magic’s resume are wins over the Lakers, Bucks and Pacers. Now Orlando faces the Celtics again, on a two-game trip to Boston that seemed at the beginning of the season like a couple routine wins for the home team but now is shaping up as a bit of a litmus test for one of the NBA’s most surprising teams.

The plan for the Magic is the same as it’s been throughout the season so far.

“I think you continue to preach exactly what you know travels, which is defense,” Mosley said. “That’s who we are, and that’s what we’ll continue to be about.”

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/nba  by Taboola