I believe it was in the Orlando Sentinel about a week ago when someone asked JJ Redick about the Magic regaining their shooting touch and their identity as a 3-point shooting team. Redick apparently paused and told the reporter who asked this question that ever since he had been with Orlando, the team has prided itself on its defensive acumen. That, rather than its 3-point shooting, has been the team’s identity.
You would be hard-pressed to believe that remains Orlando’s identity. This especially after Sacramento hung 102 points, shot better than 50 percent for the first half and went to the line for 39 free throws — a rate that equated to nearly one foul every five defensive possessions. The Magic locked it down in the fourth quarter, pulling the game out in the stretch by cutting back on the fouls and making DeMarcus Cousins really work for space. He was unable to do that and the Kings started/continued to turn the ball over at a high rate.
Still, defense has quietly been a problem for Orlando ever since the trades. Stan Van Gundy bemoaned it after the game. Even Matt Guokas of FSFlorida pointed out after Wednesday’s game that the Magic have a lot of offensive players right now and that they are not defense-first guys. Van Gundy made mention of this too earlier this week when he talked about Brandon Bass’ improvements on defense.
He said Bass is a guy who knows how to put the ball in the basket and that is what he has done for most of his career. Bass is an improved defender, but Van Gundy said he was still learning and improving his help side defense.
Guokas added after Wednesday night’s game that Orlando really lacks a nitty-gritty defensive guy who is willing to play defense and even that Vince Carter was a better defender than the team initially believed (yes, I just wrote that). Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu have not panned out defensively and are better known for their offensive exploits than their defense. Even in his first stint in Orlando, Turkoglu was not known for his great defense.
The Magic are still ranked third in the league in defensive efficiency according to HoopData at 99.1 points per 100 possessions. Last year, Orlando was tied for first in the league with a 100.2 defensive rating and in 2009 the team was first at 98.9. The Magic are still a good defensive team. Dwight Howard has a lot to say about that.
Still, the Magic have to continue to make improvements defensively. A lot of the team’s playoff success was built on its defense. And the old axiom of defense wins championships certainly rings true throughout the Playoffs. In the 2010 Playoffs, Orlando had a defensive efficiency of 99.3, good for third in the postseason. The Magic had just three games in the first two rounds above that average. Against the Celtics, they had five games above that average.
Of course, it is called an average because some games are above and some games are below it. But you can see with the majority of the above average games happening in one series, just how critical Orlando’s defense was to that late season tear through the league and the 8-0 run through the first two rounds.
The Magic have not had that type of a run of consistent defense recently. And they are beginning to repeat their statements about bringing defensive intensity, especially early. The defensive efficiency numbers recently have been decent. Wednesday night, Sacramento ended up with a 99.0 defensive efficiency rating suggesting that after the fouls, Orlando actually played defense. The team certainly did at the end of the game.
In the last five games, the Magic have given up a defensive rating greater than 100.0 in three of the last five games. But in the previous five games, Orlando gave up a defensive rating greater than 100.0 just once and had two games below 90. That is good defense.
But the last 10 games have seen that inconsistency that has been maddening to Stan Van Gundy and the fans. Does Orlando need to find a lock-down defender for the postseason? That argument might be irrelevant since the Magic seem unlikely to sign one before the postseason. We will find out then whether the Magic need to pick one up in the offseason (my guess is yes).
More importantly, Orlando has to regain a menality that puts defense first. A lot of the players on the team have focused on offense for most of their careers. It might be asking them to do a lot to change their focus toward primarily defense without a full training camp. But that is what they must do if they want to be successful this season in the playoffs. That means a full 48 minutes of focus on defense.
This season will end prematurely if they do not. And defense has to once again be the focus this offseason.