Orlando Magic can’t pick and choose — defense must be their identity

Michael Carter-Williams has been one of the Orlando Magic's most dogged defenders, but the rest of the team is slipping. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Michael Carter-Williams has been one of the Orlando Magic's most dogged defenders, but the rest of the team is slipping. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic’s defense has slipped considerably in the last few weeks. The team came to account for its struggles and hit a low in Monday’s loss.

130. 34. 107. 38. Final

The Orlando Magic locker room was jovial celebrating Aaron Gordon’s triple-double last Friday after the win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Players sprayed the young forward with water and ice to celebrate a career achievement. They had picked up a big win and capped off a big week that had re-established their place in the Eastern Conference standings.

Coach Steve Clifford was issuing a warning through the media.

He was not taking anything away from the win. It was a good win. But the team was playing with fire. The defensive effort was not good enough for long enough — good enough to defeat a team that has won just twice in 20 games.

The team had lost its way. But the team was still surviving. Life seemed good. Shots were falling, the defense could get better under this guise or not play as well because shots were going in. Shotmaking covers up so many problems.

The Orlando Magic nearly survived another poor defensive effort against the San Antonio Spurs. It covered up the deeper problems.

Not even their coach could see this coming. Clifford started his postgame press conference following a 130-107 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers at Amway Center on Monday by saying he did not see this coming. Coaches rarely do.

The rest of his time talking with the press making it clear the Magic are not themselves. The defense that is supposed to be the backbone for this team is gone and the team is an obsequious imitation of what they should be.

The Magic have no choice, they must play defense if they want to be successful. That is their identity. That is who this team is.

Rock Bottom

Monday felt like rock bottom. The team has to put all its focus on turning this around.

The Trail Blazers tore apart the vaunted Magic defense in every way possible. They posted 130 points and a defensive rating of 131.3 points allowed per 100 possessions. It was the second-worst defensive performance of the year — the worst was James Harden‘s masterful offensive deconstruction in December’s matchup with the Houston Rockets.

Portland shot 55.7 percent from the floor and 16 for 33 (48.5 percent) from beyond the arc.

Star CJ McCollum scored 17 of his 41 points in the first quarter, hitting four 3-pointers in the first quarter. He finished the Magic off too with another nine in the fourth quarter.

Gary Trent Jr. scored 14 of his 24 points in the final quarter, draining five of seven shots and two of his three 3-point attempts. The Blazers themselves made 15 of 21 shots (71.4 percent) while the Magic floundered with just 19 points on 6-for-21 shooting (28.6 percent).

Clifford’s press conference was about as stern a message as could be. He said if the Magic do not return to playing “Magic defense” then everything they have worked for is in jeopardy.

As he has repeated over and over and over again, this Magic team is not outscoring anyone. They had gotten away with it for far too long.

Monday needs to serve as a wake-up call. It needs to because the defensive problems have been present.

A long decline

For the season, the Magic are still rated ninth overall in defensive rating at 108.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. But that number has slipped considerably recently.

At the season’s midpoint on Jan. 15, the Magic had a defensive rating 105.4 points allowed per 100 possessions, the fifth-best mark in the league. Since then, however, the Magic have the 23rd giving up 114.5 points per 100 possessions.

That is a dramatic difference, a sign of how much the defense has slipped.

Orlando has given up more than 110 points in nine of its last 10 games. That is especially frustrating considering how few possessions are in a typical Magic game. The team has given up more than 110 points per 100 possessions in seven of the past eight games, including the last six. Again, a huge departure from the team’s average in the first half of the season.

The reasons for any of this are notoriously difficult to pin down. It certainly is not something anyone can do with statistics.

Fans would point to the team’s drop coverages. And certainly, Nikola Vucevic seems to be retreating to the paint too much, especially considering the guards’ struggles to contain the ball on screens. A more aggressive line might help.

In fact, one of the adjustments the Magic made during the third quarter — when the Blazers scored a game-low 23 points and shot 7-for-18 from the floor — was to have Nikola Vucevic hedge more. That seemed to put him in a more aggressive mode defensively and that raised everyone’s game.

Dropping is still likely the best strategy for the Magic considering Vucevic’s lack of mobility on the perimeter. The Magic do not want him hanging above the 3-point line too much. And Clifford’s schemes and strategy have proven to work.

Rather, Clifford has pointed to several more intangible things throughout the season. Warning lights have been on about the defense all the season.

He has talked about how the team has struggled to play physically and to get into opponents. Guards have had free reign to run through screens, setting the Magic up for difficulties and forcing them into their rotations early.

He has complained about the team’s rebounding and willingness to box out and be physical on the glass. Despite the Magic ranking sixth in defensive rebound rate, he has not been happy with the team’s efforts on the glass.

Clifford has pointed out too that the team’s rotations this year have been fine. The bigger issue is that individual ball containment. Players are not taking responsibility for their man and containing their assignment.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

After Monday’s game, Clifford again highlighted these issues with physicality. The Magic had a 76.9-percent defensive rebound rate, but the team again struggled to do much to stop or interfere with opponents.

It was a constant parade into the lane for the Blazers as they worked for open shots.

A hallmark of last year’s team was its great defense on 3-pointers — 10th in the league giving up 34.7 percent. This year it is up to 37.1 percent (24th in the league). It is worse since Jan. 16 — 40.5 percent, 29th in the league.

This all goes back to the poor defense and containment at the point of attack. Scrambling and rotating ultimately leads to mistakes. The pass is always faster. And when rotations are poor it leads to games like Monday night.

No easy solutions

The Magic were certainly without some of their best defensive players. Jonathan Isaac has been out since January. The Magic still defended well for a short time after he left. Being without Aaron Gordon hurt Monday. But he would not have gotten the matchup with McCollum. He would have likely been defending Carmelo Anthony (10 points on 5-for-9 shooting).

The real issue is the same issue the Magic fought last year as they tried to teach their defense and forge their identity.

There are still too many players where defense and physicality is something they have to keep working toward. Evan Fournier is not known as a good defender, although he has done his best and improved on that front. Vucevic is a limited defensive center with his poor rim protection and mobility on the perimeter. Markelle Fultz is still young and prone to make mistakes.

And overall the team is still full of players where defense is not second nature. Yes, despite the Magic’s penchant for acquiring defensive-first players. Those guys are actually the players whom fans and likely coaches are not worrying about on that end.

It is always a struggle to get everyone to play defense at a high level. That was sort of the miracle of last season that proved this team’s potential.

The answers for Clifford and the Magic are difficult. The team has to rediscover that spark. It really is a choice for them to play up to their potential. It will take an extra effort and constant diligence.

But this is who the team is. Or rather, who the team has to be.

dark. Next. Grades: Portland Trail Blazers 130, Orlando Magic 107

For success, the Magic are going to have to defend better. They have to choose to do this and put greater focus on their defense to win.