Raj Mehta/USA TODAY
The Magic's biggest weakness from last year was its defense. Glen Davis went down and a top-10 defense in the league through 25 games turned into one of its worst, ending up giving up 109.1 points per 100 possessions, good for 25th in the league. Orlando knows that it will have to become a better defensive team to achieve its long-term goals.
Even some of its short-term ones rely on defense and a consistent effort on that end, particularly when shots are not falling. The Magic's body language certainly slumps a bit on that end when teh shots do not fall and it can be attributed as the cause for team's last three losses.
When things are all said and done, defense is going to determine whether the Magic become a championship program or not. That is very much the foundation from which the Spurs, for instance.
Defense helps the offense immeasurably and helps teams control the pace and flow of the game. In Jacque Vaughn's second year, he has stressed using his team's defense and its newfound athleticism to contron the tempo and pace of the game.
"Just being aggressive on that end," Victor Oladipo said. "We're trying to set the tone with our defense. That's going to be big for us. We're learning day by day. Like I said, we're not going to get it all over night. We're getting better at it and we just got to continue to keep going."
The Magic's mentality in searching for a little more pace was evident in selecting Oladipo in the first place. Oladipo was a player in college known for his individual defense, high energy and ability to run the floor. This is the role Oladipo appeared ready to play when he was drafted. Jacque Vaughn said earlier in the season that Oladipo's aggressive mentality was something that would invigorate the team and give it an aggressive mindset.
For what it is worth, the Magic's pace is up this year from 94.5 to 97.4 possessions per 48 minutes. That is a pretty sinificant bump up and shows the level of comfort the Magic have now in who they are as a team.
Predictably, as the defense has slipped, so too has the Magic's control on games. Orlando is currently 18th in the league with a 103.1 defensive rating. Obviously the Magic are still a work in progress. But in games the Magic have won defense has been key.
In wins this year, the Magic's defensive rating has been 92.3 and they have played at a pace of 97.3 possessions. In losses, the Magic's defensive rating has been 107.4 at a pace of 97.5 possessions. The offense swings wildly too — 104.6 in wins, 97.0 in losses.
Controlling pace has more to do with defensive execution converting to easy offense than the actual speed of the game. It is about being the team which dictates the flow of the game.
"Obviously it allows us to get easy buckets just translating offense to defense," Maurice Harkless said. "That kind of messes with a team's mental if they keep getting turnovers and you keep getting easy buckets, it's demoralizing. We just got to be able to put presure on teams on their perimeter guys and try to get steals."
The difference is very subtle statistically, but can easily be seen when watching a game. It is usually pretty clear which team is controlling the tempo of the game. Even early in the season, Arron Afflalo said the team was at its best when playing with a little pace and using its defense to set up easy baskets.
This season, Orlando is averaging 11.1 fastbreak points per game this year, 22nd in the league. Last year, the Magic averaged 9.9 fastbreak points per game, which ranked near the bottom of the league.
It is clear then that the Magic are still improving their ability to get out on the break and figuring out how best to use this roster.
"We want to continue to push the basketball," Vaughn said. "That is one of our strengths. The versatility that we have on our roster provides for that. I think it is beneficial for us to get early shots, but good shots. But also have a discipline about ourself that those shots reflect defensive balance and our defensive stance on the other end of the floor."
As the Magic continue to grow, Vaughn said the team will get a better feeling for how to control pace and flow of the game. They will be able to adjust their pace and their execution to the way the game is being played.
The Magic are still finding the right balance and the right ability to execute that each game calls for. This is still a young team learning how to finish defensive possessions and turn that into offense.
"You have to play smart," Jameer Nelson said. "According to how the game is going, if a team is going on the run, you have to slow it down. If you're playing against a team that you know can't run with you, you push it down their throats as much as you can.
"The big part of it the turnovers will help us on both ends of the floor, take care of getting good shots and setting our defense. That's a big part of what's getting better going forward."