Orlando Magic bring back elite defense as they regain momentum

Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier have helped the Orlando Magic return to an elite defensive level. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier have helped the Orlando Magic return to an elite defensive level. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic are back to playing elite-level defense and that has helped them climb the standings again and stake a claim to the team they expected.

123. 38. Final. 89. 142

The Orlando Magic knew that no matter who was wearing the red, white and blue Washington Wizards jerseys in front of them, they would present a challenge. Washington, for all the team’s injuries to this point in the season, has a distinct style that puts pressure even on the best defenses.

They push the pace constantly and are not afraid to just shoot sometimes indiscriminately before a defense can get set. Slowing them down has been one of the hardest tasks in the league — even for the Magic and even without Bradley Beal in the Wizards’ lineup.

No matter the record, this would be a challenge as the Magic finished off a four-game homestand and stared down a difficult six-game, 12-day West Coast road trip on the horizon.

This is the exact challenge the Magic would need to confirm they were ready for that test.

This is the exact game Orlando wanted to play to confirm or at least prove the team could get back to the elite defensive level that keyed their run to the playoff and was central to any hope of repeating that this year.

With each attempt from the Wizards to drive the lane, they were met either by their man or the next man stepping up. The next pass was met with the next rotation and a scramble ensued.

Washington continually drove right into the heart of the defense where Orlando’s length could envelop them and make it difficult to do anything. They collapsed around each player and forced turnover after turnover — 23 of them in fact, feeding 35 points and the Magic’s advantage.

From the five-minute mark of the second quarter to four minutes into the third quarter, the Magic went on a 34-7 scoring burst, forcing seven turnovers and expanding a two-point to 29 seemingly in the blink of an eye.

It has felt this way for a while, but the Magic certainly felt it too after putting the finishing touches on this victory. They are starting to play defense the way they know they have to.

"“I think it is we kind of finally started doing our jobs,” Nikola Vucevic said after Wednesday’s 123-89 win over the Wizards. “The communication has been better. We’ve been getting into the right spots. All of our coverages are the same. Everything that we do is the same from game one. The thing is being as one on that end. As much as you have to play as a team offensively, defensively it’s more important.”"

The Magic’s defense has been a small point of contention throughout the entire year.

No matter how much the offense has struggled, the team knows it is only going to go as far as its defense will take it. Coach Steve Clifford surmised before the season the team needed to be in the top five defensively and top half of the league offensively to take a step forward.

At the bare minimum, the Magic expected to be in the top-10 in the league defensively.

That was the part that had slipped. Coming back from the Magic’s West Coast trip in late December, they had fallen to 12th in the league in defensive rating, giving up 107.2 points per 100 possessions for the season to that point.

Even as the offense made some small gains, the defense falling this much left the team a bit exposed and frustrated.

Since then, everything has changed.

Orlando leads the league in defensive rating since Dec. 21, giving up 97.7 points per 100 possessions, joining the Minnesota Timberwolves as the only teams giving up fewer than a point per possession during that time.

That has helped lift Orlando to a 6-3 record and now fifth in the league in defensive rating overall.

The Wizards entered the game Wednesday as the No. 6 offense in the league, scoring 111.5 points per 100 possessions. They tallied only 89 total points and 84.0 points per 100 possessions.

Orlando has given up fewer than a point per possession in six of the past nine games (the six games the team has won in this stretch). This is the return to defense the team needed to finally feel like a playoff team again.

"“I can say we can do even better if I’m honest,” Evan Fournier said after Wednesday’s game. “But we are playing better defensively. I think it’s just because we have been focusing on it, to be honest. We want to be a balanced team with a good offense and a very good defense. That’s what we are doing right now.”"

Clifford said the Magic have put a lot of focus on getting defense back in the last few weeks. The results are pretty clear.

Evan Fournier added the big change has been the team being in the right spots and doing what they are supposed to do. It is more getting on the same page defensively and playing on a tighter string.

Teams have little practice time at this point in the year. So what the coaching staff focuses on tends to spike. The Magic sensed their defense slipping and so they put more attention to it. Orlando started playing to its potential.

The impressive part is the team has done this despite major injuries to major players. Even without Jonathan Isaac and Michael Carter-Williams, the Magic have still tallied plenty of steals and blocks. The Magic are third in the league in blocks (6.3 per 100 possessions) and second in steals (8.8 per 100 possessions).

Even since Jonathan Isaac’s injury, the Magic’s shot-blocking has decreased but they are still swarming and opportunistic with 10.9 steals per 100 possessions. Orlando is finding ways to disrupt teams and secure possessions.

Clifford has been fighting a constant battle with his team to stay vigilant on the glass and get back on defense. Both are areas where the team struggles or has underperformed.

There is still plenty of work for this team to do. And that work will have to travel.

Players often say defense travels. Teams that are good defensively are supposed to be good no matter if they are home or on the road. And that is supposed to give them a chance to win.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

With the defense playing better, Clifford said the offense has slipped some. The Magic may put more of their attention on that end, hoping the team stays attentive defensively.

This is a big stretch with a lot of difficult games. But Orlando has pushed forward and climbed to seventh in the Eastern Conference. Suddenly they are playing with some swagger and confidence.

"“We’re just locking in, playing more dialed in and more focused on the other end,” Terrence Ross said after Wednesday’s game. “It’s helping the offense, I think that’s the biggest thing. if we are consistent with our defense and playing the defense we are capable of playing that should put us in a chance to win any game. We need that big time.”"

They are starting to look like the defensive team everyone imagined and playing to some of their preseason expectations.

Next. Grades: Orlando Magic 123, Washington Wizards 89. dark

And that finally has the team looking up and starting to move forward.