Orlando Magic’s defense still has long way to go, but it is getting there

ORLANDO, FL - OCTOBER 7: Aaron Gordon #00 of the Orlando Magic goes up for a rebound against Kelly Olynyk #9 of the Miami Heat during a preseason game on October 8, 2017 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - OCTOBER 7: Aaron Gordon #00 of the Orlando Magic goes up for a rebound against Kelly Olynyk #9 of the Miami Heat during a preseason game on October 8, 2017 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images) /
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The Orlando Magic will need their defense to spur their offense and build momentum this season. At the preseason midpoint, the team has work to do.

Jonathon Simmons is not one to let a mistake go unanswered or to dwell on it without making a play to recover. That is something the Orlando Magic are learning about him quickly. His energy can be infectious and he is a living example of how everyone on the team has to find a way to make an impact play.

After a second-half turnover, Jonathon Simmons only shook his head for a moment. He had to get back as the Miami Heat raced down to the other end.

The Heat thought they had a free layup for Wayne Ellington when Jonathon Simmons came flying in from behind. He swatted the ball off the backboard. It energized the crowd as the Magic worked to erase a seven-point deficit at the end of the third quarter.

It was, to coach Frank Vogel, the highlight of the game. A signal of how the team can commit itself to making plays on the defensive end to spark some offense.

"“His intensity is amazing,” Arron Afflalo told Orlando Magic Daily after Saturday’s game. “I think that’s what this team needs to embody is a fighting, competitive spirit. Quite frankly, I don’t want to talk about Playoffs all year, but we’re a good team when we play like that.”"

The Magic made that abundantly clear throughout Saturday’s 93-90 win over the Heat on Saturday. Orlando was at times dominant defensively, using turnovers and stops to feed a breakneck fast-breaking offense that pushed the pace at all times. And then, at times, the team was a bit all over the place, unable to keep containment and giving up 3-pointers.

Miami hit on 9 of 19 3-pointers in the first half, helping counteract some poor shooting in the first half. The Magic gave up a lot of open threes as they tried to sink into the paint to contest shots.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

This has been something that has happened throughout the preseason as the team learns its defensive coverages and assignments. Vogel said the key ingredient to the defense remains individual defense.

Orlando cleaned it up in the second half. The Heat shot 31 percent in the second half, committed eight turnovers and missed all 13 3-pointers they took. The Magic started chasing off pin downs and dribble handoffs rather than going under screens, according to Jonathan Isaac, and that made a huge difference.

But it was clear defense, despite all of its promise, is still a work in progress for the Magic, even at the midway point of the preseason game schedule.

Orlando relied on its veterans to help change the momentum. Players like Jonathon Simmons, Bismack Biyombo and Arron Afflalo made big plays on the defensive end that sparked the team on offense.

That spread to rookies like Khem Birch and Jonathan Isaac. Jonathan Isaac made a highlight-reel play when he blocked Hassan Whiteside on a putback attempt. Khem Birch blocked the final gasp from Bam Adebayo and defended another of his shots with the Magic clinging to a lead.

Defense helped anchor the Magic and win them the game. Just as it will once the regular season begins.

Orlando has undoubtedly embraced a fast-break offense. Their play through the first quarter with the starters especially was close to what the team wants to be. But as the game slowed down, the Magic struggled a bit more defensively.

The Magic had to make some adjustments to add some defensive urgency. It is hard to say the team did not adjust, a positive sign for where the team wants to go.

Communication has been one of the biggest things for the Magic to understand to get on the same page. Isaac said it is the biggest thing he has had to pick up, even admitting it is better to communicate to a teammate the wrong team than to be silent. Several other players noted they are continuing to work to improve their talking and communication on defense.

For whatever preseason stats are worth — and according to Vogel, it is not much — the Magic are fourth in the league with an 86.7 defensive rating and second in the league in opponent field goal percentage. The NBA is not keeping track of lineup data for the preseason. So take all of that with a grain of salt and then add several more grains.

But it would suggest the Magic are doing some good things. Albeit with plenty of room to improve.

"“I think we understood where we were getting beat and added some urgency to it,” Vogel told Orlando Magic Daily following Saturday’s game. “We tweaked a couple things at halftime.“I’m fairly comfortable with where they are at right now for it being the third preseason game.”"

In all Saturday, likely the closest to a real NBA game the Magic have gotten to this point, but still far away from the regular season, the Magic had an 86.0 defensive rating. The team had an 85.0 defensive rating in the first quarter when the starters were in the game.

Those are positive signs the team can shape up defensively. There certainly is the talent there. Everyone feels the potential with this group.

Still, the Magic have work to do. And they know it.

Too often, the Heat got into the paint and caused the Magic defense to collapse.

"“We’re far, but we’re headed in the right direction,” Simmons told Orlando Magic Daily after Saturday’s game. “I think we have a great group of character guys. It’s just about leaving it on the floor now.”"

Orlando still needs to get better defending one on one and not relying so much on help. The team still has to trust and communicate with each other to execute the complicated switching scheme Orlando is employing.

Next: Grades: Orlando Magic 93, Miami Heat 90

Fortunately for them, there is still time. And there are plenty of signs the team can make it work. It will be critical for this team overall as they try to use their defense to spark easy offense and keep the pace high.