Stan Van Gundy called it “pathetic” in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s loss to Oklahoma City. It was. Oklahoma City scored at will. Kevin Durant, when he wasn’t hitting impossible one-legged step backs, was getting to the basket and just wreaking havoc on a lost and downtrodden defense. Durant scored 18 points on 5-for-6 shooting, getting to the line six times, in that fourth quarter.
Of course, you expect the All-Star MVP to have a big game. The Magic spent a good chunk of time praising the Durant/Westbrook combo.
What you don’t expect is the Magic defense to give up 35 points at a critical juncture. More than that, nobody expects Orlando to give up 35 points in 24 possessions. Nobody expects the Magic to give up a 145.8 offensive rating and a 76.7 percent effective field goal percentage and an 82.7 percent true shooting percentage.
Indeed, that defense was pathetic.
And the defense in the second quarter Saturday against Milwaukee was not any more encouraging. Even though the Magic ended the game strong and dominated the Bucks throughout the second half, Stan Van Gundy used the post game press conference to talk more about the team’s poor defensive 12 minutes. this game seemed to be another lesson without losing.
“At some point, these guys have to quit being satisfied with stuff like that,” Stan Van Gundy said after Saturday’s win. “We’re capable fo being a pretty good defensive team. And you can make all the excuses in the world about practice time and everything else, but bottom line is most of the guys we play all know what’s going on defensively, they all understand our schemes, it’s just a matter of going out and doing it.”
And this is simply something that the Magic are not used to since Stan Van Gundy took over. While many in the national media portray the Magic as a 3-point shooting team that bombs away threes while spreading the floor around Dwight Howard, it is a team built on defense. With Howard as the linchpin, the team funnels players into the paint toward Howard where he uses his presence, athleticism and timing to deter shots at the paint.
In the last four seasons, Orlando has been in the top five of the league in terms of defensive efficiency. In Stan Van Gundy’s first year, the team had a 102.7 defensive rating (fifth best in the league). The year the team went to the Finals, the Magic were first with a 98.9 defensive rating. The year after, the team was first again with a 100.2 rating. Even last year, Orlando was third with a 98.9 defensive rating.
This year? Orlando is 12th in the league with a 98.5 defensive rating.
While this number might be better than the times Orlando was at the top of the league, the worse offense this year has put the team squarely in the middle of the pack. And it does not take much more than a quick look to see the Magic do not have the defensive intensity or consistency to be that team again.
“Defensively, we have to get better for sure,” Jameer Nelson said. “We have enough guys in here on the offensive end that will carry us night in and night out. But defensively, we have to make the key plays, get the rebounds when we need them. It has to be at all times. It just can’t be for one quarter, it has to be for 48 minutes.”
And getting that defensive effort for 48 minutes has been the task before Orlando all season. Figuring out why the team has taken this step back is a bigger question.
Consistency and energy have been issues all season. Part of the issue might be the offense and defense feeding into each other. The team certainly plays more energetic and focused when things are going well. It is when things seem to go poorly that the Magic lose focus and begin the snowball effect that leads to some of the porblems.
More than that, it seems like the team has to be working together better and trusting each other more. This is not a team with great one-on-one defenders. Outside of Howard, you would be hard-pressed to call anyone on the team a great individual defender. Yet, this is a team that is still one of the top defensive teams in the league, but a lot of its offensive flaws are typically covered by the defensive strength.
No dout, the Magic need both a good offense and a good defense to get where it wants to go. And the inconsistency — at moments looking like world beaters and at other times looking horrendous… sometimes in the same game — has been the most frustrating part. Anderson said finding that consistency will be the key for Orlando moving forward.
“If we want to be a good team, we’ve got to start playing defense,” Van Gundy said. “We’ve got to quit playing the scoreboard and tyring to pick when to play and play all the time. If we’re going to have a bad night, and everybody will, it should a bad night because we’re not making shots. It shouldn’t be a bad night because we’re not playing [defense] and not playing with energy.”
This Magic team knows that things have to change with the focus and execution on that end. That is where everything for Orlando begins. This is not a 3-point shooting team, this is a defensive team. Through and through.
All the problems Orlando has are tied very much together. If the defensive intensity improves, the offensive intensity, energy and execution likely improves too.
The answers to Orlando’s defenisvely problems are not going to be as simple as “playing with more energy” and “being more consistent.” Those are words that lend themselves to pure lip service. They are goals and aspirations. But maybe the problem is that simple.
This team is not very different from last year’s team. There is a good defensive team somewhere in there. Orlando just has to find a way to get it out, and then Orlando might be in business.
“It’s on both ends. We’ve got to be able to execute and we’ve got to get stops,” Dwight Howard said. “And that’s one thing we didn’t do well [Thursday] in the fourth quarter. It’s a good lesson for us. Hopefully we come back and get a win saturday. I think if we become more consistent on the offensive end and our individual defense gets better, we’ll ble able to contend.”