James Harden warps Orlando Magic, exposes concerns with defense

The Orlando Magic had no answers for James Harden. That should raise questions about just how good the Magic's defense might really be. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic had no answers for James Harden. That should raise questions about just how good the Magic's defense might really be. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic’s defense got exposed in trying to throw the kitchen sink at James Harden. It makes you wonder just how “elite” the Magic’s D is.

130. 169. 107. 38. Final

For the past five days, the Orlando Magic have seen some of the best players the league can offer. And for the past five days, the Magic have suffered crushing defeats to all three.

There may be no shame in losing to three of the best teams in the league. The Magic may have put in a good effort (if not a directed and efficient effort) in all three. But they are all still losses.

And they are all still losses that raise some questions about their supposedly elite defense.

If the Magic are going to make the playoffs and be the team they can be, it all starts on the defensive end. Their playoff push last year came because every night saw the team bring defensive intensity — even if the offense struggled. And that included games and wins against some of the best teams in the league.

This Magic team is struggling to establish that identity every night.

And after James Harden dropped 54 points on the Magic with little the Magic’s defense could do, there has to be some question as to just how elite this Magic defense is.

Or perhaps a player like Harden only exposes holes that come from the pressure of playing an elite player at the peak of his game right now.

"“I feel like we lost against just him tonight,” said Evan Fournier, who got the primary defensive assignment on James Harden, after Friday’s game. “He’s the MVP for the reason. We talked about pregame that you have to contest shots and just live with the result. He did not miss tonight period. He’s incredible. Give credit. . . but that’s pretty much it.”"

Harden proved difficult to defend throughout the game. He jab stepped and waited to see how they would react, stepping back to hit 3-pointers over the set defense. Orlando tried staying on his hip, forcing him right and trying to get him to shoot floaters. That only worked for so long.

Then the Orlando Magic had to trap and double — sooner than they did last year, according to coach Steve Clifford — and that only made things worse. Harden tallied three of his seven assists in the fourth quarter and the Houston Rockets obliterated the Magic in the third and fourth quarters to pull away.

Clifford said the Rockets’ decision to use Harden solely in isolation made covering him harder. There was no natural help defender and the team’s rotations were caught out of whack to try to give Harden a different look.

"“We tried hard,” Clifford said after the game, waiting to reserve final judgment until he could watch the tape. A lot of times in a case like that when a guy is going that well and the other guys shoot too, it can make it look like you are doing things worse than you are.”"

That may be the case for the entire week with what the Magic had to face.

Giannis Antetokounmpo tallied 32 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists in the Milwaukee Bucks’ comfortable win on Monday. The Magic gave up too many fast-break opportunities to him but in the half-court, their stream of long wing players were able to contain him some. He was not their chief problem in that defeat.

But a loss it remained.

So too was the case when the Magic went up against Anthony Davis, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. James tallied a triple-double with 25 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Anthony Davis struggled for much of the game but still made an impact on the glass.

More importantly, the Magic lost.

At least in those two games, the Magic held two of the best offenses in the league to well below their season averages. The Magic had a chance to win the game because of their defense. But the team’s offensive struggles made every mistake seem bigger.

And that exposed some pretty clear weaknesses with the defense at the moment.

The Magic’s struggle to rebound cost them against the Bucks. Their struggles to slow down the Lakers and poor rotations late cost them against the Lakers.

The Rockets were simply another animal. The Magic gave up a season-worst 142.9 offensive rating, completely outweighing the Magic’s own relative offensive strength in this one.

Was this an anomaly or something bigger? Was Harden a singular event or sign of bigger trouble?

To start, the Magic’s defense is still very good. Orlando entered the night ninth in the league in defensive rating. This loss alone tumbled them out of the top-10 to 105.9 points allowed per 100 possessions.

The Magic are a good rebounding team with a 75.1-percent defensive rebound rate (fifth in the league), even though it was offensive rebounds that killed the team against the Bucks and Lakers.

These are elite teams who took advantage of an undermanned Magic team that is still struggling to get a 48-minute effort.

The offense is obviously a work in progress — one that has slowly started to improve in the last few weeks and should only get better with Nikola Vucevic‘s impending return. But the defense had to be the team’s bread and butter.

This performance is not a sign of overall defensive weakness. The Magic can still be a strong defensive team. But since Nikola Vucevic left the lineup (11 games including Friday), Orlando has a 108.2 defensive rating (13th in the league). that is certainly not good enough to get the job done for this team.

The defense has slipped considerably.

Vucevic should help. Despite his defensive shortcomings individually, he is a good lane protector and help defender. He is always in the right spot to deter and corral drives until the Magic’s other defenders get into place.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Would that have helped slow down James Harden more than what Khem Birch could have provided? Would it have mattered getting that extra rebound against the Bucks or that last stop in the post against the Lakers?

There is one clear message regardless. The Magic are not going anywhere if they do not get their deense playing at a higher level.

"“We’ve just got to play better team defense,” Terrence Ross said simply after Friday’s loss."

The Magic have had some major defensive lapses in some big games. Orlando can hold down the best teams only to a point.

With Harden able to rip them apart — even forcing the Magic to abandon some of their defensive principles in an attempt to stop him — it exposed the Magic as still a team with defensive flaws.

If Orlando wants to compete with the elite teams and be a playoff force, they will find a way to slow down players like Harden and defend even the best teams at a high level every night.

The Magic may not quite be there yet. And that might be a bigger problem for the Magic.

What to make of this defense then? What conclusions can anyone draw from Friday’s loss?

Next. Grades: Houston Rockets 130, Orlando Magic 107. dark

Harden is really good and can beat even the best defenses on his best nights. And the Magic still have lots of details to hone in on to be the best team they can be — on both ends.