Orlando Magic dominate by keeping things physical, keeping things simple

Orlando Magic guard Michael Carter-Williams is among the players not afraid to get physical defensively. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
Orlando Magic guard Michael Carter-Williams is among the players not afraid to get physical defensively. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images) /

Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon started Sunday’s game with some physical pushes to the basket. That set the tone for a dominant win.

132. 38. Final. 116. 84

When Aaron Gordon is in his flow, it is undeniable watching him. He darts into the lane and drives straight at defenders. His mix of size and strength gives smaller 4s and most 3s issues when he has an eye toward the basket. He has the athleticism to work around players and get creative finishing around the rim.

Aaron Gordon is not brute strength or force. He is not an imposing figure. But when he wants to establish himself, he can.

Sometimes he needs a reminder to do that. Sometimes he blends into the crowd too much, trying to get others involved and fitting in. Of course, sometimes he bends the other way, dribbling around too much and taking contested shots.

Gordon is about balance. But he needs the reminder at times to attack and be physical. As does the Orlando Magic.

And when he is able to get into that flow, making quick decisions and driving to the basket everything opens up.

James Ennis went up to Aaron Gordon and gave him that reminder to be a bit more aggressive after taking only five shots in the Orlando Magic’s seeding round opener against the Brooklyn Nets. To establish the team’s physicality and establish their base, they would need Gordon.

Gordon took that advice to heart.

"“That’s my game and that’s me playing my game — energy, physicality,” Gordon said after Sunday’s game. “I’m one of the biggest players on the floor. I just wanted to take advantage of that and set the tone of getting to the rack. That’s just me playing my game, being aggressive, being attacking and being assertive. When they see me playing to my strengths, it encourages everybody to play to their strengths as well. It helps the team altogether.”"

It indeed seemed to spread. The Magic turned in one of their best defensive efforts in a long time, scrambling to rotate and get stops.

Orlando set that tone early and then dominated the rest of the way in a 132-116 win against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday.

Physicality has been a constant call from coach Steve Clifford throughout the season. He wants his team to get into players defensively and dictate where they are going to go. He wants them to force action and put teams on their back foot.


And so with the Magic’s first few possessions, they sought out Gordon, establishing him in the post against Harrison Barnes. They sought out contact too, Gordon bowling over players and winding his way through players to finish around the rim with strength.

"“I thought he was great on both ends,” Clifford said after Sunday’s game. “He did set the tone by getting the ball to the basket, drawing fouls and making passes. We shot the ball exceptionally well. We were inside-out and I thought he set the tone.”"

They scored the first seven points with Gordon scoring the first five, once on an and-1 dive down the lane and the second on a post-up with a finish in traffic near the basket.

Gordon does not have a lot of explosion in traffic, but when he goes up strong with the ball, he can absorb contact and finish around the rim. Gordon is truly at his best when he is able to make quick decisions and attack the basket. And nowhere was that more evident than early in the game when Gordon was constantly on the attack.

The Kings were staggered early. Orlando never trailed in the game. And each shot seemed to build confidence on both ends.

The Kings scored only 98.7 points per 100 possessions through three quarters — the Magic were at 141.3. It was a dominant performance. A physically dominant performance as the Kings were unable to get the shots they wanted and were playing on their back foot throughout.

"“You have to be the team that delivers the first hit,” Nikola Vucevic said after Sunday’s game. “Tonight we did that on both ends. Offensively, I thought Aaron starting very aggressive for us and getting into the paint and scoring all the easy ones got us going as well. It’s something that we need to do. As the year went on, we got better at it and it showed in our game. Our defense was much more efficient, our offense as well. It’s very important to do that and be physical and make it hard for the other team.”"

Every player had some role to play it seemed.

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Gordon started things with his play at the basket and go the team into the rhythm. Markelle Fultz carried it through the second half of the first quarter with some solid mid-range jumpers set up with his dribbling and drives. Terrence Ross caught fire in the second quarter to build off that momentum. Nikola Vucevic and D.J. Augustin’s pick and roll took the game far out of reach.

It all seemed to go into the next. And it was all relatively simple — ball movement, pick and rolls, pin downs and kick-outs.

But it is the simplest thing and perhaps the most important thing the Magic have to do to find success. They have to be able to play this way to succeed.

Being physical can be amorphous — just like the Magic’s infatuation and description of pace. But it comes down to providing some barrier defensively to force opponents where the defense wants, boxing out, being active and getting deflections, and finishing through contact. Players cannot be afraid to go at anyone on offense or defense, even if it means an occasional foul.

The Magic largely did not commit a ton of fouls during the scrimmages. That was a sign of the team’s seeming lack of physicality and explained at least some of its defensive struggles.

Similarly, the Orlando Magic struggled early on against the Brooklyn Nets because they were not able to add much of a physical barrier to the Nets’ early pick-and-roll game. They adjusted there too and put together a strong second and third quarter defensively to take full control of the game.

To some extent, playing physically is playing without fear too. It is playing with confidence. That is something the Magic have right now.

"“We have a way to play and we have to stick with it,” Terrence Ross said after Sunday’s game. “We are moving the ball well. Our defense is really helping our offense. It turns into easy offense when you get stops and pushes. We have to keep that going and stay in rhythm as much as we can.”"

Orlando is on a roll right now. It has entered the campus seemingly focused and able to ratchet up defensively in a major way.

It is nothing complex though. It is the simplest things that are getting the job done.

Next. Grades: Orlando Magic 132, Sacramento Kings 116. dark

Orlando’s success starts off the same way Gordon did Sunday night. By driving through contact and finishing at the rim and dictating the game physically.