The Orlando Magic are fifth in the league in defensive rating. But they know they have a lot of room to improve and a lot of work to make it permanent.
D.J. Augustin was still beneath the basket on the opposite end, having tweaked his hamstring. The Magic were playing four-on-five and coach Frank Vogel did not want his team to foul with the Grizzlies in the bonus. They would have to scramble and survive.
There was a clear disadvantage, but the Magic forced a contested 3-pointer from Andrew Harrison after several passes. They gave up the offensive rebound. Harrison missed another 3-pointer and another offensive rebound. Finally, the ball got to the corner for Tyreke Evans. Another open, but hurried 3-pointer. And, finally, a rebound for the Magic.
Orlando got its timeout to get D.J. Augustin off the floor.
That sequence said a lot about the Magic. It showed the team’s determination to scramble and contest. Down a man, the Magic still forced passes and made the Grizzlies work for open looks.
But they were still open looks — something teams have gotten plenty against the Magic with five players on defense throughout the year. And Memphis still got those offensive rebounds, another weakness for this team.
Orlando’s offense has overshadowed a lot of the storylines for this surprising team. But quietly, the Magic have built their defense up in the first 10 games. But they still have a lot of work to do.
"“Overall when we communicate, when we run around and when we’re aggressive, we’re pretty good [on defense],” Nikola Vucevic said. “It’s not always perfect. A lot of times, we’re scrambling around and stuff, but we get it done. When we stay focused, and we don’t have any mental breakdowns and we don’t go away from the gameplan, we stay pretty solid. That’s all you can ask for in this league.”"
Nikola Vucevic said all the Magic have to do is focus on making the simple plays and not doing too much. They have each other to lean on. When this Magic team is on the same page, they can be strong defensively. And, for the most part, that has been the case.
Entering Tuesday’s games, the Magic were fifth in the league in defensive rating, giving up 100.9 points per 100 possessions. That is a bit surprising.
There have certainly been some holes in the Magic defense and the team has given up at least 100 points in six of their 10 games. Their pace has something to do with that. But Orlando has put together some impressive defensive performances this year.
Like how the Magic have changed their offensive mindset, their defense has changed too.
Using their smaller lineups to switch more and swarm the strong side and the ball, the Magic have added an extra layer of defense for teams to crack. With their potential to switch nearly every position 1 through 4 with Aaron Gordon at power forward, teams have a tough time creating penetration and movement.
Even with Vucevic not being a strong rim protector, the Magic have been able to create a bit of a wall defensively.
At least, when they are on the same page.
That might be the part the raw numbers do not tell. The Magic still have a long way to go defensively despite this strong statistical start.
"“I honestly don’t even want to comment on that because I don’t feel like we are defending at fifth in the league rate,” Vogel said. “I still feel like we have a ton of room for improvement. I know we have a ton of room for improvement. But if you want to attribute it to one thing, our guys are really trying. They are really caring about that end of the floor and bringing great effort.”"
The effort is certainly a start for the Magic. But there are clear holes.
Vogel can rattle off a list of areas the team needs to improve and they are all certainly worth some form of examination.
The team could stand to improve its rim protection and ball containment. Teams shoot 63.3 percent at the rim against the Magic on 29.7 field goal attempts at the rim per game, the most in the NBA. Orlando gives up 50.2 points in the paint per game, the second-worst in the league.
That penetration also creates open 3-pointers. Orlando has given up its fair amount of open triples. Teams just are not hitting them against the Magic. For now.
Orlando also needs to improve its rebounding and limiting teams to one shot. A lot of those points in the paint come from offensive rebounds. The Magic give up 11.2 offensive rebounds per game, the fourth most in the league. Opponents score 13.8 second-chance points per game against the Magic, the sixth-most in the league.
Vogel added to his laundry list the team’s ability to negotiate screens and continuing to communicate through screens. This was a problem against the Boston Celtics on Sunday.
Indeed, during this two-game losing streak and in other losses, it is common to see Magic players pointing or going with the same player, leaving someone open. Orlando can get lost a bit in its communication.
And in this losing streak too, the Magic’s offense slowing down often leads to the team getting a bit frustrated defensively. Orlando is not the kind of team that relies wholly on its defense. Eventually, the floodgates open when the offense is not working perfectly.
Despite these shortcomings, the Magic are doing plenty well overall. But they know they need to keep working to improve on defense.
"“We’ve just got to be quicker,” Aaron Gordon said. “We’re missing some rotations every now and then because we’re in between and a little indecisive. We’ve just got to be quicker and more decisive.”"
That is the drawback that comes with switching. It takes constant communication to make sure everyone is covered. When it does not work or players fail to make the right switch or coverage, it leaves someone open.
Gordon said the Magic are generally doing a good job but the team still needs to become more tied together and improve there. As the overall numbers suggest, it works more often than it does not.
But it is far from perfect, clearly. There are still some obvious lapses.
Vucevic added the team’s communication is still a work in progress. It is what they emphasize in practice when they work on their defense. And it adds to their aggression defensively when they talk and work together successfully.
As the Magic’s offense seems to regress to its mean, they will have to focus on what they can control. A lot of that is the defense. Orlando will need its defense more than anything to be that backstop.
Despite the strong numbers, the defense has not quite been that. This is not an elite defensive team. Orlando’s defense has worked largely because of the juice they get offensively.
Orlando’s defense has shown flashes of what it can do. To keep this hot start going, the Magic will have to bolster these defensive numbers even more.