While Orlando Magic, offense soar, team knows defense is its key

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 21: D'Angelo Russell of Brooklyn Nets in action during NBA basketball match between Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic in Barclays Center in Brooklyn borough of New York , United States on October 21, 2017. (Photo by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 21: D'Angelo Russell of Brooklyn Nets in action during NBA basketball match between Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic in Barclays Center in Brooklyn borough of New York , United States on October 21, 2017. (Photo by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic’s offense has taken a lot of the headlines in the team’s 3-1 start. In reality, the season will turn on whether the defense shapes up.

The Orlando Magic needed one more stop to secure their win over the Brooklyn Nets.

That was far from a given. Sure, the Nets have put up some prolific offensive numbers so far this season, but defense is ultimately what could and should win the Magic some games. That is what they will ultimately need.

Up five only a few minutes before, the Magic made some boneheaded defensive moves to allow the Nets back into the game — forcing Aaron Gordon‘s heroics from beyond the arc.

Terrence Ross‘ foul on D’Angelo Russell on a 3-pointer was hardly an isolated incident. The Magic had several possessions where they were in great position to close out the possession only to see it undone by a foul or a late rotation or an offensive rebound.

Still, that fourth quarter — where the Magic gave up 25 points and stormed back to the win — was a bright spot. And that final defensive possession was too. Ross redeemed himself, intercepting Russell’s pass to give the Magic the possession and a chance at the free throw line to go up two scores. Orlando scrambled well up four and watched the Nets brick three straight 3-pointers.

It was not pretty, but the Magic won.

That is the best way to describe the defense so far this season.

"“Not good enough,” coach Frank Vogel described the Magic’s defense. “I feel like our offense is ahead of our defense right now. We have to continue to improve what we are doing on that end of the floor in all areas. That’s what we looked at on film today. A lot of controllable things we can get better at pretty quickly. Hopefully, we respond.”"

Vogel’s inkling is correct. The Magic indeed are ahead offensively.

Orlando is second in the league in offensive rating, scoring 113.4 points per 100 possessions. That is an incredibly strong number, not just for the fact it is second only to the Golden State Warriors.

The defense is not as bad as it might initially seem. Orlando is 12th in the league giving up 102.6 points per 100 possessions. That defense with that offense certainly will do fine.

But, of course, take all early season statistics with a grain of salt. The Magic have not played enough to believe those numbers are indicative of anything. And everyone expects the offense to come back down to earth. Everyone is seeking their normal this early in the season.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Half those games came against the Nets, who posted a 114.1 offensive rating in the win in Brooklyn on Friday and a 107.1 offensive rating in the loss in Orlando on Tuesday. The Orlando Magic gave up just 97.8 points per 100 possessions against the Miami Heat in the opener and 90.4 points per 100 possessions to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This is all to say, there have been good moments. But the numbers may not tell the whole story when it comes to where the Magic are at. They know they still have work to do despite some encouraging and discouraging signs.

"“It hasn’t been great at all times,” Nikola Vucevic said of the team’s defense. “We have shown some great flashes. Against Cleveland, we played pretty well defensively. Against Miami, we had some stretches where we did. Even against Brooklyn last game, for 46 minutes we couldn’t get a couple stops in a row to save our lives. But in the end, we found a way. I think it will get better as the season goes on. We just have to have a sense of urgency on that end.”"

There is still time for it to get a lot better. But there is plenty that makes Vogel and the Magic worry about the team in the long run.

The first is that fouling issue. While most of those free throws have come in games against the Nets, the Magic are giving up 28.3 free throw attempts per game and a 30.1 percent free throw rate. Both rank in the bottom 10 of the league.

Orlando has struggled to defend without fouling. That has gotten the team into plenty of trouble. Particularly against the Nets. With half the Magic’s games against one offensive-minded opponent, it is easy to see why the numbers are somewhat skewed.

The fouling is of particular concern since it stops the game so much and prevents the Magic from running. Their offense bogged down in both games against the Nets as the Nets paraded to the line constantly.

The Magic have found a way to win, but there are clear areas that need improvement. The result is secondary. Orlando spent a good chunk of its practice Thursday drilling its defense and trying to improve in that area, knowing there are big challenges ahead.

"“Honestly, we try not to get caught up on the result and teach and correct and improve each day that you come together,” Vogel said. “Whether we had lost the Brooklyn game or won the Brooklyn game, we still have to come in and get better.”"

Aaron Gordon concurred the team could do a lot better. He said the team could improve in just about every area, but highlighted the team’s one-on-one defense, boxing out and second-chance points.

That has been another area the Magic have struggled. Their opponent’s 25.8 offensive rebound rate is 24th in the league. Teams are getting plenty of second chances against this smaller lineup. It burned Orlando in Brooklyn and certainly could be a weakness moving forward.

The other issue might be the Magic’s switching defense. There is a lot even players like Nikola Vucevic has to get down that is new now that the team looks to switch a lot of perimeter screens. That adds some extra responsibility to every player.

With a shortened preseason, perhaps, the Magic are still adjusting to these new defensive rules and the like.

At some point, the Magic’s stats will normalize and there will be a better picture of this team. Vogel estimates that happens around the 10-game mark.

Then, the Magic can look to these numbers as a benchmark for where they are at.

Next: Orlando Magic finding out which player is most vital

Until then, they see these numbers as a sign of where they can be and how they can continue to grow. Because defensively, the Magic still have a lot of work to do.