L.A. Clippers ride momentum into first matchup with Orlando Magic

Garrett Chorpenning

The L.A. Clippers came out strong Tuesday night, jumping on the Cleveland Cavaliers early and putting them away by halftime. Kawhi Leonard was instrumental for L.A., pouring in a season-high 43 points in less than 30 minutes of court time. 

And though that may not seem so surprising or even worth mentioning, it's a big step forward for a Clippers team that has been largely inconsistent over the last several weeks.

We're all familiar with the issues by now — the surprising losses, tight finishes against mediocre teams, a general lack of effort, etc. The list goes on.

The win over Cleveland isn't exactly a memory-wiping victory, and it shouldn't be for fans, either. But the quarter-to-quarter consistency, improved ball movement and defensive intensity could all be signs of what's to come as this Clippers team continues to figure things out.

Their next chance to prove themselves comes Thursday night when the Clippers host the Orlando Magic.

On paper, that matchup doesn't sound all that thrilling. The Magic are the seventh-seeded team in a top-heavy Eastern Conference that drops off significantly after sixth, and besides Nikola Vucevic, there aren't many recognizable names that jump off the roster. 

But that's where Orlando excels. They field a very unsuspecting team. A team that, surprisingly, allows the fewest points per game and owns the fifth-best defensive rating in the league. A team that ranks third in steals and fifth in blocks. A team that has seven players averaging at least 10.7 points per game. 

Kind of hard to believe, right?

The Magic are a strong, stingy group. Their ability to play superb team defense is arguably the biggest reason why they're a playoff team halfway through the season.

They also took down the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday night in one of the bigger upsets we've seen this season. Former No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz had a 21-point triple-double in Orlando's 119-118 victory.

That said, the Magic are far from perfect. For as good as they are defensively, they're every bit as bad on offense. Orlando scores 103.8 points per game — the worst mark in the league — and has the fifth-worst offensive rating. They're a non-factor from three-point range. And although they make very few mistakes with the ball, Orlando's top playmaker averages just 4.7 assists per game.

It's going to be a slugfest, and the Magic are going to do their best to make the Clippers play an ugly game. 

Fortunately, L.A. should still have a significant advantage. 

As was the case against Cleveland, the Magic don't have a top-tier wing defender to throw at Kawhi Leonard now that Jonathan Isaac is nursing a significant injury. That doesn't mean we should expect him to have a repeat performance (especially since he drained a season-high six three-pointers in the win), but it's going to be very difficult for Orlando to slow him down — more so now that he has the hot hand. 

Orlando is also relatively average when it comes to defending the three, which is a bit surprising. The Magic are allowing opposing teams to convert at a 35.3 percent rate from beyond the arc, which ranks 15th in the league. Something worth noting is that in games in which their opponent makes at least 14 three-pointers, Orlando is 3-7 on the season. In games that opponents shoot less than 30 percent from deep, Orlando is 9-2.

Therefore, playing without Paul George for the fourth consecutive game could be the difference for L.A. As Sabreena pointed out earlier, Patrick Patterson could earn the starting nod to get the three-ball going early and to combat Orlando's size (and lack of closing speed) down low.

If the Magic succeed at playing their game, this one could come down to guys like Patterson, Landry Shamet and Patrick Beverley hitting their shots from outside. Otherwise, the Clippers could be in for another long and disappointing night.