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Magic’s depth, defense returning to form as halfway point of season approaches

NEW YORK — The Magic (22-18) are getting healthy again.

Although Orlando was without forward Franz Wagner (right ankle sprain) and guard Gary Harris (right calf strain) against the Knicks for a sixth consecutive contest, its depth was nearly back to full strength during Monday’s 98-94 victory that snapped a 3-game losing streak.

Center Wendell Carter Jr., who missed five in a row due to right knee tendinitis, made his return to the court in a major way, scoring 17 points in 19 minutes.

Point guard Markelle Fultz and veteran forward Joe Ingles were also available again after not playing on the second game of a back-to-back Saturday night at Oklahoma City.

All three came off Orlando’s bench, which totaled half of the team’s points and outscored New York’s second unit 49-20 in the 4-point win at Madison Square Garden.

“It’s great to have bodies,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after the win and weeks of dealing with injuries as well as an illness that went through the roster.

While Fultz, Ingles and Carter were used as reserves, the Magic started guards Jalen Suggs and Caleb Houstan plus forwards Chuma Okeke and Paolo Banchero along with center Goga Bitadze.

Forward Jonathan Isaac and guard Cole Anthony also played with the second unit but Orlando didn’t even need to use Anthony Black or Moe Wagner — who have been regular pieces to its rotation this season — on Monday. Both were healthy scratches.

“It’s big,” Mosley said about the lift his bench provided. “They put on a defensive clinic in a lot of ways. There was protection at the rim — you saw Wendell and [Isaac] both getting big blocks down the stretch and keeping the [Knicks] off the glass.

“They did a great job of setting the tone defensively.”

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If there’s anyone who’s grateful for the help, it’s Banchero.

While Orlando’s success likely leans on Banchero’s shot-making down the stretch of games — he scored 5 of the team’s final 8 points on Monday — the second-year forward saw a significant increase in his usage as of late.

“It’s great to have those guys back,” he said. “We’re a different team when they’re on the court. It showed what their veteran presence, leadership [means].”

Not only are key players back for Orlando, but so is its defensive tenacity.

Monday’s game marked the second in the Magic’s last three in which they held their opponents to below 100 points.

The return to its defensive identity bodes well for Orlando as it prepares for an intense playoff race in the second half of the season.

And thanks to that, the Magic will have a chance to go 2-2 on their four-game trip when they visit Atlanta for a Wednesday night meeting (Bally Sports Florida, 7:30) with the Hawks (16-23).

“I think so, I really do,” Mosley said when asked if his defense is starting to get back into its groove. “We talk about it in the locker room. The defense is who we are.

“We have to hang our hats on that because [when] we go 8-of-29 from 3 [against the Knicks], you’re not hanging your hat on making shots. You’re hanging your hat on getting stops to be able to get out and run.”

The Magic’s win over New York (23-17) keeps them squarely within striking distance of making the postseason, and not just the play-in tournament.

As of Monday, Orlando found itself in 8th place in the East, one game back of the 7th-seeded Knicks and just 2 games back of the 4th-seeded Cavaliers.

While Carter, Fultz, Ingles and Isaac continue to get back to their normal selves on the court, the Magic feel confident about their ability to close the gap in the second half of the season.

“It comes with time,” Carter said. “As long as we just stay healthy, I feel like we’re going to be in a really good spot going to the playoffs.”

Email Jason Beede at jbeede@orlandosentinel.com or follow him on X, known as Twitter, at @therealBeede.