Defense has been Orlando’s calling card the last three years. Not the 3-point shooting. Not Dwight Howard’s post presence inside. The Magic have been built around defense. And lately that identity has been a little lost.
Sure Orlando still ranked near the top of the list entering Monday’s game in defensive efficiency. But the games against the Jazz, the Raptors and even the Nets made the Magic’s vaunted defense look a little tame. Not completely tame because Dwight Howard is still back there defending the paint.
Enter the Grizzlies, a young team with offensive weapons all around and a certain amount of spunk to take down a struggling Magic team. Not so much on this night.
Memphis shot 36.2 percent from the floor, shot 3 of 14 from beyond the arc and committed 18 turnovers. Orlando’s defense was absolutely stifling as the team led wire-to-wire for a 89-72 win at Amway Center on Monday night.
The Grizzlies posted a horrid 38.1 percent effective field goal percentage, 16.9 percent turnover percentage and a truly putrid 81.5 offensive rating, according to the Advanced Stats Calculator. Those are just difficult numbers to comprehend. NBA teams do not play this poorly on offense, especially from a team that features solid offensive weapons like Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay. Those two combined for 18 points on 8-for-32 shooting.
Orlando countered with a decently strong offense… or a strong enough offense. The Magic raced out to an 8-0 lead and never really let go of the lead. They had a 13-point lead at the half and saw it trickle to five before sending it promptly back to double digits.
The Magic had their own turnover issues in the first half, but the defensive intensity was high enough to cover up those mistakes. In fact, Stan Van Gundy even claimed the defensive intensity is what led to some of the offensive issues.
And there are still plenty of offensive issues to sort out.
Rashard Lewis, who Orlando went to early in trying to kick start him out of his slump, scored only nine points on 3-for-13 shooting. Jameer Nelson, who did a good job probing the defense and getting in the paint, still only came out with 11 points on 3-for-7 shooting. Brandon Bass had an unusually inefficient night with 10 points off the bench on 2-of-6 shooting. Dwight Howard too struggled inside going five for 13 from the floor on his way to 18 points.
Vince Carter was really the only guy getting it going offensively, scoring 19 points while fighting foul trouble for most of the second half.
What worked though was the energy. Even with 3-pointers not falling — six for 17 on the night — and the offense sputtering at times fighting the turnover bug, the Magic kept attack and attacking and attacking. And for a change, they hit their free throws.
The Magic went to the line 34 times and hit 27 free throws. That includes Howard’s eight for 11 performance at the charity stripe. Orlando took advantage of its aggression and while ball movement was sometimes lacking, 12 total assists on 28 field goals tonight, the team got the ball in the bucket to answer every Memphis run.
And really the energy brought to this game has to be the main story coming out of it. You could see it in Marcin Gortat diving on the floor to save a loose ball in the second quarter. Or Mickael Pietrus coming from the opposite wing to stop a fast break opportunity and knock the ball out of bounds. Or Chris Duhon picking Mike Conley’s pocket at mid court and starting a fast break.
The Magic were extremely active and ready to go defensively from the opening tip. In what other game can you say Howard led the team in rebounds with 14 followed closely by Jameer Nelson’ 11? It will not happen very often. But in a game where the ball seemed to want to bounce away from every player’s touch, it was the team effort on the glass (Quentin Richardson’s effort on the offensive glass early should also be noted) and on defense that willed the team to victory.
It was another off offensive night. But the Magic’s calling card, their defense, proved to be exactly what this team should be known for with an absolutely suffocating effort.