Defensive answers for the Orlando Magic continue to elude them

The Orlando Magic's defense has been inconsistent all year despite a top-10 ranking this season. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic's defense has been inconsistent all year despite a top-10 ranking this season. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic’s once-vaunted defense is faltering of late and the team is suffering through its worst stretch as they try to find some answers.

38. Final. 122. 79. 106

The Orlando Magic would see the same play run on the first possession of the game. The Dallas Mavericks were putting a little bit of a stress test on the defense to see just how the Magic would cover them.

Luka Doncic grabbed a screen from Kristaps Porzingis and headed toward the rim. Nikola Vucevic dutifully dropped while Aaron Gordon scrambled around to get back in front. He did but Doncic still had the upper hand — he always has the upper hand.

Luka Doncic put a carefully placed ball fake to get Nikola Vucevic to turn his head and let up. The pathway opened to the basket and Doncic laid it in. The young guard had the Magic right where he wanted them. And for the rest of that quarter, he played with them for 16 of his 33 points.

From the beginning, the Magic’s defense was already facing the pressure. And in a certain way, it had already snapped. Breaking before it even bent.

Orlando’s whole basis for success is built on its defense. The team does not have a lot of offensive weapons and so it is staking its claim to a playoff spot on the strength of one of the best defenses in the league.

Last year, the team made a run for the playoffs on the strength of that defense — it was the top defense in the league from Jan. 31 to the end of the season. Orlando climbed into the top-10 overall and established itself as a group that would get after teams physically. Their length advantage was very real.

This year, Orlando has rested on those laurels some. It remains the seventh-best defense in the league. But increasingly as the playoff race tightens up, the Magic have not been able to rely on their defense.

It may not be at the point of panic for the team. But if there is something to blame the Magic’s inconsistency and seeming stagnation this year it is on the defense.

"“We were just passive defensively,” Evan Fournier said after Friday’s 122-106 loss. “Not aggressive. Not on the ball. That’s pretty much game.”"

It was a seeming parade throughout the first half and the fourth quarter. Pick and rolls over and over again. The Mavericks found a groove feeding Porzingis on pick and pops to the top of the key. He made four of his nine 3-point attempts and 8 of 16 overall for 24 points.

Outside of the third quarter when the Magic got its attention to detail down, the Mavericks just rolled through the defense. The closing kick was all pick and rolls with Maxi Kleber where Mohamed Bamba especially struggled to stay attached to Kleber on pick and roll coverages.

The Mavericks identified a weakness and attacked it unendingly. It was pick and roll after pick and roll with the center reading the Magic’s defense and going wherever space was open. The roll man struggled with his man, the ball handler struggled with his man and both ball-handler and roller moved with impunity.

Dallas, in scoring 122 points on a 119.6 offensive rating, really got whatever it wanted.

Evan Fournier said pick and roll coverage is all about technique and physicality. Right now the Magic are not playing with any of that. Getting it back is on individual players to do it. There is no tweak or schematic adjustment to make.

There have been too many games like this where Orlando breaks down in simple ways. Where the Magic suddenly have to break their rules or where even effort has to be questioned.

The Magic are not playing defense to their capabilities or anywhere near where it has to be for this team to win.

"“Our focus has to be better,” Vucevic said after Friday’s loss. “The attention to detail, executing the game plan and making the extra effort. Things that we talk about over and over. I think we just don’t do it consistently. We have stretches where we do it and we’re really good at it. It sparks our offense as well. But it’s not consistent for 48 minutes.”"

In the last 15 games, the Magic have a 113.5 defensive rating. That ranks 21st in the league among all teams’ last 15 games. To say the least, the Magic are not winning any games with defense like that. Orlando simply does not have the offensive firepower to keep up.

Why the defense has slipped is a bigger question that has been difficult to answer.

It may honestly have no answer other than to tell players to be better.

Before Friday’s game, coach Steve Clifford said the biggest challenge for the team defensively has been individual defense. The team he said was good last year at keeping their man in front. But it has been the weakest part of the defense this year.

The Magic are a good defensive team, but they have to be better. And Orlando has to lock in defensively and keep their man in front, play with more discipline and stop fouling.

That is an area the Magic continue to struggle. Clifford said Friday the Magic struggled with their basic coverages.

"“Our attention to detail just wasn’t there from the start,” Aaron Gordon said after Friday’s loss. “Yeah, we did a good job fighting back. But if you are going to give away possession after possession, you aren’t going to win in this league.”"

Aaron Gordon said fixing this comes from preparation. There needs to be more urgency in their approach to shootaround, practices and games. That has certainly been something that has been felt throughout. Especially with the Magic still holding onto the final playoff spot with a precarious but comfortable three-game lead.

The Magic rely on this defense, though. It was what charged their run to get back into the game and take the lead in the third quarter. Orlando held Dallas to 2-for-10 shooting to open the third quarter. That included forcing two turnovers to take the lead for the first time in the game.

That showed the undoubted benefits of playing good defense. The Magic play better and score more efficiently when they do not face a set defense. Steals and deflections get the team out and running and help them pick up the pace.

That was when the Magic were at their best Friday. But they lost that rhythm. As they broke the lineup that attention to detail slipped. And suddenly it was all gone.

The defensive inspiration had left the team.

The answers to their defensive problems are still all right there in their own control. The Magic just have to put in the effort and focus to reach them. Nobody is asking for perfection. But what they have seen in the last several weeks will not get the job done.

Next. Grades: Dallas Mavericks 122, Orlando Magic 106. dark

Everyone knows it. It is all the team has talked about for some time. But for whatever reason, the Magic are not able to execute it.