When the Magic drafted Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton, he talked seemingly unendingly about the team’s defensive potential. The Magic were banking a good chunk of their rebuild on being able to stop the other team from scoring. The offense would come later — or in the form of the Magic’s latest free agent signing, Channing Frye.
How would that defense look in actuality?
Sure, it is Summer League, but it is also pretty clear the Magic have put a focus on stifling opponents on the defensive end. And through two games, it is also pretty clear it is working.
“I thought we had some great defensive possessions,” Magic coach Wes Unseld, Jr. said. “You don’t realize how well we are playing defensively until you take a step back and look at the stat sheet. On the other end, you have some possessions where you want us to be better. We’ll look at those scenarios and clean it up. But I think it is about building good habits at this point.”
Orlando put the clamps down on Houston in the second game of the weeklong Southwest Airlines Orlando Pro Summer League and opened up a large lead early on. The Rockets shot 32.4 percent from the floor and were 3 for 18 at one point in the game. The Magic opened up a 23-point lead at halftime and never looked back.
The intensity may have waned as the game progressed, but the effects of the team’s devastating defensive pressure early on lingered on as the Magic won 87-69 to improve to 2-0 on Monday.
“We’ve got some good defensive players on this team,” Aaron Gordon said. “They understand concepts. They are long, athletic and quick. We know it’s a two-sided sport, so we put it together.
“It’s an advantage you can have in Summer League. If the other team isn’t put together on defense, then you can take advantage. If our defense is better than theirs, we’ll probably win.”
The Magic set the tone on that end and carried it over to the offense. It started with their point guard, Payton.
He overcame the nerves that seemed to stifle him a bit in the first game Saturday. Payton said he felt more comfortable in controlling his pace and playing at his speed. The game started to slow down for him. He dribbled more patiently around screens and picked the right moments to attack.
Payton led the Magic with 12 points on a perfect 5-for-5 shooting, adding nine assists and eight rebounds. More importantly, he helped set a tone on the defensive end. That was something he, Aaron Gordon and Devyn Marble were brought in to help set for the entire team. They started doing that on the Summer League team for sure.
Payton said players are sticking to their principles and understanding where they have to be. The Magic did a great job cutting off dribble penetration and rotating and recovering when players were able to get into the teeth of the defense. It was far from perfect — it is still Summer League, after all — but the way the team is sacrificing for each other on this end is somewhat surprising considering how little time this unit has been together.
“We look to put pressure on teams and force chaos and I think we did that tonight,” Payton said. “The point guard is the head of the defense. It all starts with the guard. That’s what I try to do. That’s what I thought I did today.”
Payton and Gordon certainly seemed a lot more patient and calm in their second outing with the Magic. The jitters were slowly going away as game speed became normalized. Gordon was not much of a factor offensively — nine points on 4-for-7 shooting and 1-for-7 shooting from the foul line — but was solid on his perimeter defense and help defense.
Dewayne Dedmon did a good job protecting the basket with 11 points, three steals and two blocks.
Kadeem Batts and Seth Curry added 10 points each as well. Orlando’s offense started to slow down as the game went on, slowing on its blistering pace. The defense remained a constant for most of the way as the Rockets never made a serious run on the lead.
The Magic stayed true to that principle even in a league where individualism tends to reign. That is what Orlando wants to see. They are building the organization on defense as a pillar.
After the shaky starts in the first game, confidence is growing. And winning helps.
“It helps [build confidence],” Payton said. “But each day I’ve got to get better. That’s the goal. That what I’m going to continue to try to do.”