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Those gunning, running Orlando Magic

Hello, TrueHoop Nation. I write for the TrueHoop Network blog The Painted Area under my nom de blog, M. Haubs. Henry has kindly handed me the keys to play the Dick Clark role and usher out Basketball Year 2010.

Let's get it started with a look inside the numbers of the red-hot Orlando Magic, who have now won five in a row with their new-look lineup. Just a week ago, I judged the Magic trades as flawed because, for the long-term, they did not acquire young talent which could complement 25-year-old Dwight Howard (who can become a free agent in 2012) into the future. Meanwhile, for the short-term, I thought the acquisitions provided just a mild improvement, rather than vaulting Orlando back into true 2010-11 title contention - the only justification for taking on veteran players with longer contracts.

I still stand by the long-term opinion, but, man, the Magic are sure making my short-term views look silly with their dominating performance over the last week. Over the course of their 5-0 run, the Magic have scored 110.5 points per 100 possessions, while allowing just 96.0 points per 100 possessions - both numbers which would lead the league for the season - for a staggering 14.5 differential, even though their opponents have included Boston, San Antonio and New York.

Orlando's defense has been strong all season (they're fourth in defense efficiency at 99.0 overall). It's been on the offensive end where the Magic have shown the most improvement, as their previously-struggling O has moved up to 12th in the league overall with a 105.1 efficiency mark.

It's The Shooting

Where has their offensive improvement come from? Well, it's dangerous to generalize on just a five-game sample, as they've won their games in a variety of ways - with staggering offense (vs. the Spurs), with suffocating D (vs. the Celtics), and by crashing the offensive boards (vs. the Knicks last night).

Still, an examination of the "Four Factors" - the box-score statistics which correlate most closely with winning - over the five games shows that Orlando's advantage stems almost entirely from effective field-goal percentage (basically, standard FG% which recognizes an extra point for three-point makes).

For their five-game streak, the Magic have shot a blistering eFG% of .575, which would easily lead the league (NBA average is .496), which has lifted their overall season eFG% to a strong .523.

Meanwhile, on the defensive end, the Magic have allowed a stifling eFG% of .454, which would also lead the league, which has dropped their season eFG% down to .478.

In the other key categories, Orlando has not shown improvement over its full-season marks. Their rebounding has remained about the same, while they've actually been worse in terms of turnovers and free throw rate. While the Magic are forcing slightly more turnovers over their winning streak, they are actually committing many more TOs, at a 16.9 rate which would be the league's worst - yes, even worse than you, Charlotte.

It's The Deep Shooting

From there, let's go inside the shooting numbers, thanks as always to the trusty shot-location data from Hoopdata. Defensively, not much stands out - Magic opponents are shooting a little bit worse across all distances. Offensively, though, the long-range numbers really jump out.

For the winning streak, the Magic have drained an average of 12.8-28.0 threes per game (.457). Compare that to Orlando's season averages of 9.0-24.3 (.370), and the league average of 6.5-18.1 (.359).

Furthermore, the Magic have also been on fire on long twos (16-23 footers), making an average of 7.2-15.0 per game (.480). Compare that mark to 5.8-14.8 (.394) for Orlando's season and 7.9-20.1 (.394) for the league average.

At other locations, Orlando's shooting is relatively similar (down a little bit from 2-10 feet).

Not only are the Magic shooting the deep ball well, they're also shooting it often. A whopping 35.2% of their field-goal attempts have been threes during the streak, above their league-leading season mark of 31.2%, and way above the league average of 22.4%.

Lakers fans who watched the early-season barrage from Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown might inform you that those kinds of percentages are not sustainable over the long haul.

It's The Running and Shooting

The other striking change in Orlando's statistical profile during its new-look winning streak has been its embrace of the transition game.

For the year, the Magic have played at a pace of 93.2 possessions per game (21st in the league), but over the course of the streak, they've upped the tempo to 96.8, which would match the Suns for eighth place in the league overall.

The extra possessions are turning into extra points. Amazingly, even after averaging 18.0 fast-break points per game over the last five, Orlando is still dead last in the league at 9.5 fast-break points per game.

The 18.0 mark would rank just behind Golden State for third in the league. Even throwing out the 30 fast-break points scored against San Antonio as an aberration, the Magic would still rank as a top-10 fast-break team based on their winning-streak performance.

Also, data from Synergy Sports suggests that the Magic have been effective at finding three-point shooters in transition.

A True Contender?

So, after that data dump, can we conclude that the Orlando Magic, with their shuffled deck, are once again a championship contender? They sure seem that way to the naked eye, but the numbers suggest that they may be a bit too dependent on nailing the long ball (which perhaps just makes them a renewed version of their old selves).

In the two ugly losses which preceded their winning streak, Orlando shot just 12-32 and 15-46, respectively, from 16 feet or longer. Five games is probably too small a sample to suggest that the Magic's winning streak is a mirage, but given the unsustainable long-range shooting numbers, it's also probably too small to definitively say that Orlando is back to the form which took them to the 2009 Finals. You've caught our attention, fellas; now keep proving it.