Orlando Magic’s defense nearing a breakthrough

The Orlando Magic put the clamps on the Miami Heat in the fourth quarter continuing a trend that suggests the defense is finding its footing. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic put the clamps on the Miami Heat in the fourth quarter continuing a trend that suggests the defense is finding its footing. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic put on a defensive clinic in stopping the Miami Heat in their tracks. That continues a trend to suggest the defense is waking up.

38. Final. 85. 110. 105

After the Orlando Magic’s shootaround Friday morning, there was a tinge of disappointment in the air.

Both Jonathan Isaac and president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman addressed the media, reacting to the announcement that Jonathan Isaac would be out indefinitely with a severe knee sprain. The team was going to be without one of its most important players. He was someone that was key to their identity.

Isaac could switch onto any player, stifling them with his length. Isaac is selfless and defensive-minded, an embodiment of who the Magic want to be. Replacing him would be almost impossible.

It was already easy to see how eager Isaac was to get back onto the floor. He knows he has to be patient with his recovery. Both he and the Magic understand the bigger picture when it comes to his health.

But Isaac left the media with one more nugget.

His biggest disappointment in not playing these games was the realization of how close they were. Isaac said he believed the Magic were turning a corner and getting closer to the team they were supposed to be.

The jury is still out at whether the Magic have truly turned a corner or not. But the results the last two outings after a disappointing loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Monday sure are encouraging. Something clicked on that forced this team to refocus — perhaps it was that frustrating defeat.

Against the Southeast Division-leading Miami Heat, the Orlando Magic turned a five-point lead at the end of the third quarter into a dominant 105-85 win. The Heat scored just six points, tying the Magic’s franchise record for fewest points allowed in a quarter. A startlingly low number from one of the best offensive teams in the league.

Orlando shut down Miami completely when the game was on the line, withstanding runs throughout the game to maintain and then eventually grow its lead.

It all seemed to happen in a flash. It never felt like the Magic were stifling the Heat this much. Miami was still moving the ball, but Orlando was scrambling and present at every turn. The Magic closed out effectively deterring any shots to the rim. Miami was left mostly taking mid-range floaters, the kind of shots any defense wants them to take.

The Heat are the second-best 3-point shooting team in the league by 3-point field goal percentage, but they made just 7 of 37. In a six-point quarter, Miami certainly missed its share of open shots. But the Magic were attentive defensively all night.

In that fourth quarter, the Heat made 3 of 19 shots, missing all 10 of their 3-pointers. Miami, one of the best teams at getting to the foul line in the league, failed to shoot a free throw.

It was a clinic in every way for the Magic. They were there at every turn. The Heat had no answers.

Really, Miami had no answers throughout the game. The free-throw shooting — 10 of 14 in the third quarter and 18 for 23 of the game — was about the only thing that allowed the Heat to keep the game close.

Orlando still has plenty to clean up — including several open threes the team gave up that just would not go in for Miami. But it was a third straight solid defensive performance (at least statistically). Miami scoring just 85 points was obviously a sign of this. It will be rare to hold any team to an 87.6 offensive rating.

Indeed, the Magic’s defense is starting to make a small turn.

Orlando has given up less than a point per possession in four of the team’s last six games. Even that fateful game against the Hawks saw the Magic post a better-than-average defensive rating (104.1 points allowed per 100 possessions).

Really, in the last six games, only the loss to the Milwaukee Bucks could be characterized as a bad defensive game statistically.

This is playing out too on the court. The Magic have had a much more directed and focused effort on that end. They are playing on a string more and filling in and defending at a higher level. Everything works better as the team scrambles to challenge shots.

You can watch players communicate with each other as they seamlessly pass their man off to the help and then quickly fill in to help the helper. The Magic are making those second-effort plays that differentiate good defense from great defense — a stop for a turnover or a basket against a stretched out defense.

It is difficult to play defense at this level for all 82 games as the Magic have learned. But far too often this year, the team has been inconsistent in their focus and attention to detail on that end. Part of the lesson the Magic were supposed to have learned.

That lesson probably got ingrained in them with the result of Monday’s loss to the Hawks. The team seemed to take that defeat seriously as squarely in their hands — the Magic played defense better than their season average that game.

Since then, and since comparing their effort Monday to the more energetic and focused effort. The one they called the standard in reference to a one-point win over the Philadelphia 76ers a week ago.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The Magic have played with a lot more focus. It has very clearly lit a spark in the team. And the team is reaching down and finding the defensive potential everyone saw in them — yes, even without Isaac.

Whether that spark will continue is the question. The Magic are playing on some emotion following the loss to the Hawks on Monday that refocused the team and now the injury to Jonathan Isaac. The Magic have a lot working against them still.

The next game — Saturday against the Utah Jazz — will provide a new and difficult challenge. So too will the West Coast trip on the horizon, the toughest part of the schedule.

Things can change just as quickly. The game against the Heat marked the Magic’s best defensive rating in any game since early November (the third-best mark of the year, in fact). But just before the six-game stretch where the Magic’s defense started to lock into place, they gave up more than 110 points per 100 possessions in five straight games — all four games on the road trip plus the loss to the Houston Rockets.

Orlando can clearly see how quickly things can turnaround. And just how much focus it takes to play defense at the level necessary to succeed — even against a good team like the Heat.

The Magic though have proof now of that feeling of playing good defense. They have seen recently how easily that can fall apart and how easily that can let them down if they are not careful.

This is where their real growth can occur. This is where the team can begin to play like the team they always thought they could be.

Next. Grades: Orlando Magic 105, Miami Heat 85. dark

Perhaps this is where they turn the corner.