Orlando Magic’s defense showing cracks as deflection numbers go down

The Orlando Magic are still a devastatingly good defensive team. But the group has shown cracks in its last two games and their overall activity is down.

The Orlando Magic have one of the best defenses in the league statistically. The team is up to third in the defensive rating rankings at 100.6 points allowed per 100 possessions.

With the talent they have and their personnel, this was something that was expected. They finished eighth in the league in defensive rating last year and it is the core of what could make their team great this season.

Despite the general improvement and the team’s defensive rating getting better in the last few games overall, the team has noted some slipping in that area. They needed to spend some time fortifying their strengths after a pair of home games revealed some cracks in the facade.

The markers that make the Magic’s defense so dominant have flipped around. And while the team has remained competitive — including Wednesday’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers — the team knows defense is where it has to make its mark.

And recently the team has not had the defensive intensity it has come to rely on this season. That is most seen in their deflection numbers.

“We’ve just got to keep the fire lit and stay intense,” Jonathan Isaac said after practice Thursday. “I think the scouting report is a big thing. Just continue to know what our guys are going to do and try our best to get our hands on the ball.”

The entire game against the Indiana Pacers was a struggle defensively. The Pacers seemingly ran their pick and roll with impunity as defenders got eaten up on screens. The Orlando Magic’s 118.5 defensive rating in that game was the second-worst of the season — trailing only the blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

In that game, the team had 15.0 deflections according to NBA.com’s hustle statistics. That was above the team’s average of 13.9 deflections per game.

But the team tracks deflections differently. Clifford reported the team had 33 deflections in the loss to the Pacers, a season-low by the coach’s count.

Then the same thing happened Wednesday against the 76ers. Clifford reported the Magic had only 33 total deflections for the game again (NBA.com tracked them with just 8.0, confirming a low count).

Through three quarters in that game, the Magic gave up 47.2 percent shooting and 82 total points — including a 29-point third quarter. The team’s defensive rating through three quarters was 105.1 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Suffice it to say, the Magic’s defense was not strong for three quarters.

The fourth quarter changed everything of course. The team locked down the Sixers in giving up just 31.6-percent shooting, forcing seven turnovers and allowing only 15 points. The Magic’s 60.0 defensive rating is an incredibly strong number.

The team started getting into it defensively and that changed everything.

“We were more into the ball, we were better with our coverages,” coach Steve Clifford said Thursday after practice about the difference in the fourth quarter in Wednesday’s game. “We had a lot of blown two-man pick and roll coverages last night.”

No matter how anyone wants to track deflections or defensive activity, it is clear this is a key part of their game. And that much is easy to see.

Jonathan Isaac is usually one of the most active players on the team. While the way NBA.com tracks deflections is different, it is abundantly clear what his activity is through his accumulation of “stocks” — steals and blocks.

Jonathan Isaac is second in the league in “stocks” with 45 (31 blocks, 14 steals), trailing only Andre Drummond (47 “stocks” — 21 steals, 27 blocks). Jonathan Isaac trails only Anthony Davis in “stocks” per game at 4.1 per game. No matter what, this is elite, versatile company to be in.

The Orlando Magic, as a whole, are third in the league in “stocks” behind only the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers.

Isaac said he is not going out there chasing blocks. But he wants to be someone who changes shots at the rim. He has established himself as that early in the season. And the last few games have seen Isaac’s activity drop — only three total blocks in his last two games and no steals.

If “stocks” are about activity and intensity, the Magic have certainly let some things slip lately.

Against the 76ers, the Magic had a season-low eight “stocks.” Three of those eight came in the fourth quarter.

Clifford said he does not want to see his team get itself out of position to go for steals, but having a high steal and block number is a benefit to the defense and can feed the team’s offense. One of the Magic’s defensive weaknesses has been forcing turnovers.

Thankfully, the Magic’s offense has started to come around to lessen the pressure on the defense to be dominant. The team has played five of its six best offensive games in its last five outings.

Slippage defensively is something that can happen during the course of the season.

As games pile up, teams have less practice time to fine-tune defensive rotations and adjustments. Most of the changes the team has to make are from processing things on film and copying it over to the court. Clifford said that was something the team was very good at doing during their playoff run.

But the team could still use the reminders on the court when they can get it.

Thursday, the team spent some time drilling defensive adjustments to try to get things back on track and re-establish habits. But really, the biggest shift is the pressure on the ball.

Clifford said in both the Pacers and 76ers game, the Magic failed to “get into” the ball handler. The lack of physicality in defending the ball allowed for free runs into picks and into the lane and disrupted the team’s overall rotations.

The team has to give those guys less cushion. It has to stick closer to its defensive principles.

“It has to start there for us,” Isaac said after practice Thursday. “It has to be something every single one of us realizes. Even when the offense does start to get going, we can’t give up on our defensive intensity and attention to detail.”

The Magic recognize there is still work to do to keep it among the very best in the league.

Still, Orlando has been able to put together some devastating defensive performances. There is no crisis with the defense. It has stepped up at critical times and remains the biggest strength for the team.

It’s just time to tighten things up and increase the physicality and activity to get it back to the levels it needs to be at.