David Manning/USA TODAY
A week ago, the story was Orlando's defense. The Magic were riding high and relying on a newfound defensive energy and synergy to defeat the Los Angeles Clippers, slowing down their offensive juggernaut and holding them below 100 points for the first time this season (and just one of two times so far).
This was a Magic team that was defending well in the paint. They were giving up some offensive rebounds, but recovering nicely to prevent scores.
The difference between Orlando last year and Orlando this year remained the team's defensive resurgence.
A week later, the defense is the glaring weakness of a team mired in a three-game losing streak and back below .500 yet again.
"I think overall at the end of the day, the coaching staff we've looked at it, we've looked at the numbers, the amount of shots people have taken and made and the areas that we want them to take and make shots," Jacque Vaughn said. "Unfortunately, they have made shots. And that is just a part of it. Over time, if we continue to improve on what we're doing, I think we should be in good shape."
In the last three games, Orlando has given up 47.4 percent shooting and, more importantly, 124 points — 41.3 points per game — on 55.9 percent shooting in the paint. That includes 50 points on 25-for-33 shooting in the paint in Monday's loss to the Celtics.
The three games prior to that, Orlando was giving up 37.0 percent shooting, setting a franchise mark for consecutive games holding teams below 40 percent shooting. The Magic were giving up an average of 30.7 points per game in the paint on 38.3 percent shooting. Those are some drastically different numbers.
Orlando's defensive rating entering tonight's game against Milwaukee is a still solid 101.7, good for seventh in the league. There is a good defensive team in this Magic squad. Something that was not present last year when the team was 25th with a 109.1 defensive rating.
"That's a whole bunch of credit to the coaching staff for always harping on us, 'defense, defense defese,'" Victor Oladipo said. "For us to be successful, we have to play great defense this year. If we just continue to keep building on that, believing that and trusting in that, we can be pretty good."
Oladipo added that the defense can indeed feed the offense and take pressure off the team. It helped Orlando blow out the Playoff-favorite Pelicans, Nets and Clippers at home. Jacque Vaughn said the key for the Magic, particularly against the Clippers, was to get them to play against the set defense. Preventing transition points was key to that win, but Orlando has been very strong when the ball is put in the half-court set.
Here again, offense feeds defense. It is difficult to run off of made baskets. The Celtics especially took advantage of their transition opportunities.
This is where a young player and a young team will really show its stripes and where the Magic have to continue to show their growth. Growing consistency and effort on the defensive end will continue to be the goal for this season. Jameer Nelson said the key to playing good defense is the discipline to stay with the gameplan.
"It's effort. Defense is effort," Nelson said. "The easy part is offense. Everybody has that energy on offense, but you get tired on defense for whatever reason. We've been doing a good job focusing on what we have to do to take away something from the other team. You're not going to take away everything. Teams and guys are too good to shut them down. If we can take away one thing and make them a little uncomfortable. It's looking like it is working to our advantage right now."
It would be easy to argue that this is what went wrong in the loss to the Celtics, particularly Monday's loss. The Magic were late in transition and the Celtics got numerous run outs and fast break points. They wrecked the Magic's defense in transition.
There will be some recovery right now for the Magic. They have to get back to the kind of play that they were playing earlier in the season. That is easier said than done.
A little confidence will go a long way in accomplishing that goal.
Arron Afflalo argued that a big difference was for the guards to help Nikola Vucevic on the glass and support him in rebounding. Afflalo said that will ensure the Magic finish possessions defensively, something they did a good job surviving in the win over the Pelicans a few weeks ago. Another key difference, according to Vucevic, was the team's communication and toughness. The Magic were trusting each other more and covering for each other.
For whatever reason that timing is now off.
If the Magic get back to their defensive ways, it will begin building momentum. Eventually Vaughn wants the Magic to be known as a defensive team.
"It can be very contagious. We can feed off of every player on the team," Oladipo said. "Coaches, everybody gets into it. It provides that juice. Someone once said, 'Defense wins championships,' and they weren't lying. We just got to continue to keep playing defense together and helping each other when somebody makes a mistake, cover for them and stuff like that. We've just got to keep continuing to do that."