After an uninspiring 2-6 start, the Magic suddenly find themselves in the mix for the Southeast Division lead at .500. Head coach Steve Clifford is still trying to change the culture around the franchise after six straight losing seasons, but things appear to be heading in the right direction.
Two big reasons for optimism in Orlando are Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba. The duo combined for 15 points, six rebounds and six blocks against the Lakers.
The Lakers had their positive momentum halted on Saturday after winning four straight games. LeBron James followed up his 44-point effort against the Portland Trail Blazers with 22 points and seven assists in defeat. Lonzo Ball had the second scoreless game of his career by going 0-of-5 from the field.
Lonzo Ball Must Emerge as Lakers' No. 2 Option with Rajon Rondo Out
After ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Rajon Rondo would miss three to five weeks with a broken hand suffered on Wednesday, the spotlight on Lonzo Ball became wider and brighter.
Ball fared well in three games last month when Rondo was suspended for his role in the brawl against the Houston Rockets. The 21-year-old averaged 12.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 6.7 assists and shot 53.6 percent (15-of-28) during that stretch.
Saturday was a different story for Ball, who had five rebounds, four assists and three turnovers in 28 minutes. This marks the fifth straight game he's shot 40 percent or worse from the field.
There are other areas where Ball makes his presence felt, notably on defense during this sequence in the first quarter:
James is clearly the No. 1 option for the Lakers; no one can question that. Brandon Ingram has been solid—he finished with 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting against the Magic—but hasn't taken the leap to stardom that some, including James, expected after last season. Kyle Kuzma is still finding his role as a center in head coach Luke Walton's system.
Ball was drafted No. 2 overall last year with the hope he would become the face of basketball in Los Angeles for the next decade. He's only 21 years old, so it's not nearly time to throw in the towel.
Ball even admitted to ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk playing alongside players like Rondo and James is a completely different experience for him:
"My whole life I ain't never played with someone like him, or LeBron. It's new to me to just try and follow in their footsteps in a way, just because you can see them get the most out of everybody and the practices are way better than they were last year because they are always challenging people.
"I mean, he's the best leader that I've ever played with -- between him and LeBron."
James' presence created such a seismic shift for what the Lakers are expected to do this season. Ball's first test as the team's one true point guard is a struggle that he needs to fix quickly to keep this team going strong until Rondo returns.
Surging Magic Are Dark-Horse Playoff Contender
It's time to start thinking of the Magic as a legitimate playoff contender in the Eastern Conference.
This isn't to say they belong in the same category as teams like the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. That quartet has far more talent and big-game experience than Orlando's current roster.
The Magic haven't made the postseason since the 2011-12 season when Dwight Howard and Ryan Anderson were their top two scorers. This franchise has fallen on hard times since then with six straight years under .500 and four different head coaches during that span.
Clifford has brought a different attitude and approach to the team in his first season, via Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel:
"It doesn't mean anything when you lose. It's a team sport. You can't play five guys and win. Everybody's gotta be ready to play. One of the things that does have to change is that we have to have, all of us, expectations of playing well, instead of just saying, 'This guy did this good,' and all this stuff and the fans saying, 'Good job.' It's not OK.
"This league is about winning in the playoffs. That's one of our problems. The expectations are so much different than when I was here before. You know, if those guys didn't play well, they heard about it, and that's the way it's supposed to be."
Orlando's roster features a complement of veteran scorers, with Nikola Vucevic and DJ Augustin leading the way against the Lakers with a combined 58 points, and young high-ceiling prospects still developing. Mohamed Bamba scored eight points in 15 minutes.
Jonathan Isaac, while still being used in a limited role off the bench, is turning his dynamic talent into all-around production. The 21-year-old had seven points, five blocks and five rebounds against the Lakers.
The Magic were having problems scoring when the season began. Per Basketball Reference, they entered Saturday ranked 25th in points per game (104.4) and 26th in offensive efficiency (105.6) but have put up at least 109 points in each of their last five games.
Things in the Southeast Division are a mess right now with the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks fighting each other to stay out of the cellar. The Charlotte Hornets were the only team at .500 when the day started.
If the Magic continue to get steady improvement from Isaac and Bamba, allowing them to play more minutes each night, their ceiling is that of a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.