Like on offense, Orlando Magic must find identity on defense

Detroit Pistons
Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic found something that works offensively. The same can’t be said for defense. The defense remains a wreck and the loss to Detroit showed it.

The Orlando Magic were at a low point leaving Denver and after the first quarter against Portland. They needed to make a change. They all knew it. They all said they knew it.

And so they changed.

They pushed the pace, running off of misses and even off of makes. The offense flowed as the ball moved quickly and the Magic attacked quickly.

This was the fast-breaking team the Magic said they were going to be. The team finally put action to their words.

Now about the other side of that equation . . .

The Magic have scored more than 100 points in three of the last five games after reaching 100 points in just three of the previous 10 games. It was clear the Magic’s offense had turned some kind of corner in picking up the pace as they did. It was just too bad the defense did not come with it.

That has not been more evident than it was in the last two games where the Magic gave up 127 points and 128 points respectively. Even with a faster pace, there is no way to cut that but say it is bad defense. The Magic have given up an offensive rating greater than 104 points per 100 possessions in 12 of the past 14 games.

Orlando’s defense has been bad.

It was particularly bad Wednesday against Detroit. The Pistons shot 52.1 percent from the floor and hit 10 3-pointers. More impressively, maybe even moreso than 20 assists from Brandon Jennings, the Pistons posted 117.9 points per 100 possessions.

Detroit pushed back at Orlando — 70 points in the paint and 19 fast break points — and Orlando had no answers. Or, at least for the most part. The Magic did have a 26-6 run and the defensive intensity picked up. But when the Pistons starters came back in, they attacked again and the Magic defense crumbled away. A two-point deficit ballooned back to 14 on a 14-2 run.

Game. Set. Match.

It all starts and ends on defense. It always has in this game and it always will. And right now the Magic are pretty defenseless.

So in much the same way the Magic’s offense underwent a crazy transformation by picking up the pace, the Magic’s defense has to go through the same. In much the same way the Magic’s offense became about an aggressive, attacking offensive style that gets teams out on the break. The speeding up of play helped the Magic move the ball and unlock the athleticism on the roster.

The defense though remained pretty passive. Teams were able to attack right back. The Bulls hit 100 points. The Grizzlies nearly hit 100 points (only game in this recent stretch not to hit at least 100 possessions). The Thunder scored 127. The Pistons 128.

Orlando failed to catch the Detroit pick and rolls as Brandon Jennings came into the lane and made Orlando’s interior defense his silly putty. The lobs on the break to Andre Drummond were perfect as he ran to the rim after the guard made the defense step up.

As the Magic have played at this faster pace more and more, they have talked about how they still need to control the tempo. They have to be the aggressors. They have to force teams to play at their pace.

The same goes for defense now. The Magic are running so fast, they cannot seem to get their defense set. They cannot seem to get themselves straightened out. Teams are running back at them and the Magic are only hoping to outscore them.

Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic

Jan 21, 2015; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (0) dunks the ball in front of Orlando Magic forward Channing Frye (8) in the third quarter at The Palace of Auburn Hills. The Pistons won 128-118. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando played the role of passive defender. The Pistons caught the Magic between two strategies. Would they hedge the pick and roll to cut off the ball handler or would the center back up and play center field to prevent further penetration while the guard recovers? At times, Wednesday it seemed the Magic did neither.

Jacque Vaughn said after the game Orlando was opting to try to take away the shooters after what happened in Orlando in December. That did not quite work out as the team got pulverized in the paint and the rotations around the perimeter were slow.

Matters were made worse as guards continually had difficulties getting around screens leaving Nikola Vucevic to corral a guard driving the lane with a teammate chasing to recover and the screener rolling to the middle of the lane (sometimes Channing Frye was there, sometimes he was not). It did not completely seem the best strategy for the Magic.

At least, it did not work tonight.

And the Magic let the Pistons dictate the tempo.

Tempo. Pace. These are words we throw around a lot. That has become the end-all, be-all of this team.

In order to control pace, there has to be an aggression. They have to take hold of the game. On offense, the Magic are trying to do that. They are not always successful at it. No team can be. The Magic are dictating things more on offense.

They now have to find a way to do that on defense. They have to dictate the tempo.

There are going to be times when good defense and whatever philosophy the team has gets broken down. It happened when the Magic gave up a four-point play to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Or it happened when the Magic got a good stop only to see Anthony Tolliver dive on the floor and save the possession for the Pistons.

Those were signs as much as anything. The Magic could not consistently finish defensive possessions. They were not the ones racing to the ball. They were not the aggressors.

Even with a new aggressive attitude on offense, it has not come to the defense. The defense has not picked up its aggression even with the new attitude on offense. The aggression is not there.

It sounds cliche at this point of the season. . . the Magic need to find a defensive identity.

Are they an aggressive trapping team using their perimeter defenders to hound ball handlers out of their comfort zone? Are they a pack-the-paint team that gives up the 3-point shooting banking on lower percentages outside the paint? Is this a team that uses the strong-side zoning Tom Thibodeau made famous?

What kind of team is this on the defensive end?

This was a team that was meant to be a terror defensively. At least, that is what we are supposed to believe about the potential in this team.

The Magic focused on the offense so much the last few weeks, the defense got neglected. It is time to bring the pendulum back.

Orlando’s defense was never anything near elite . . . or even mediocre this year. But it has been downright bad of late. And the Magic have to find their aggression and identity there if they are going to hit whatever they want to achieve this year.

Maybe the last two games acted like the Lakers and Blazers games to snap them awake.