Orlando Magic’s 3-point defense is big concern heading into playoffs

The Orlando Magic have not experienced the big rush of shooting that has taken over the league. Their 3-point shooting and defense will be key ahead.

The NBA’s campus at Disney has been off and running for a month. The games are week deep and the playoffs are slowly coming into focus.

Any adjustments players needed to make or the oddity of the environment are slowly wearing off as the seeding round nears its end. Everyone is finding their rhythm again. And if they have not, they better soon.

The top teams might be taking their time and willing to rest players knowing there is a long haul ahead. The teams fighting to playoff positioning — like the Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference — are playing like there is no tomorrow.

The Orlando Magic have not been one of those teams.

After a fast start in the first two games against the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings, the Orlando Magic have hit a rut offensively. They have been unable to generate points consistently and their whole play, especially to start games, has felt fairly lifeless.

The Magic rank 14th out of 22 teams in offensive rating (109.0 points per 100 possessions) and 15th out of 22 teams with a -2.2 net rating. Clearly other teams are also experiencing some of these re-acclimation struggles too.

Orlando has struggled to keep pace as offenses around the league seem to be skyrocketing. Not only that, but the importance of the 3-point shot has been critical in success in the bubble. As has 3-point defense.

And these are two areas the Magic have struggled most. With the Milwaukee Bucks on the horizon and their 3-point happy offense, the focus on shooting and defending the 3-point line will be more vital than ever to the team’s postseason success.

Offensive surge

The big surprise inside the campus has been the surge in offensive production throughout the league. Everyone expected teams to struggle out of the gate as they tried to regain rhythm. Instead, it seems like defenses needed more time to get sharp than shooters.

The median offensive rating in the NBA entering the hiatus was 110.4 points per 100 possessions. Since entering the bubble, the NBA’s median offensive rating has jumped to 111.1 points per 100 possessions.

The median effective field goal percentage has gone from 53.0 before the hiatus to 54.2 percent. Teams are shooting better and more efficiently and scoring better. Although defenses have started to come around and some of the hot shooting around the league has started to slow down as teams gear up for the playoffs — and eliminated or injured teams play weaker lineups.

The increased scoring is something you would expect when you eliminate the worst eight teams in the league.

The worst offenses are no longer player — only two of the 10 worst offenses are still playing (they belong to the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets). But also the worst defenses in the league are gone too (four of the worst 10 defenses in the league are in the bubble, and none are in the postseason position currently).

This has been perhaps the most surprising development inside the campus.

Where everyone might have thought there would be more turnovers and inconsistent shooting because of the long layoff, teams are actually struggling to get their defense right — unless you are the Toronto Raptors, the best defense in the bubble by 6.5 points per possession over the Oklahoma City Thunder and the only team giving up less than 100 points per 100 possessions.

The Magic’s offense has seen some of this surge in its seven seeding round games to date.

Orlando posted a 107.6 offensive rating and 50.4-percent effective field goal percentage for the entire season. Within the campus, Orlando is posting a 109.0 offensive rating with a 51.4-percent effective field goal percentage.

But it is clearly not enough and not at the rate of other teams.

The 3-point factor

Just go back and watch the losses to the Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets to understand how quickly teams can lose control over the game with poor 3-point defense.

In both games, the teams blitzed the Orlando Magic with 3-pointers early.

The Pacers hit seven of their 12 3-pointers, including three from T.J. Warren, to hit the Magic with a 40-point quarter they never recovered from. The Nets on Tuesday made six of 15 3-pointers in the opening quarter to stake them a 12-point lead they would never concede.

Orlando, especially with the inconsistent shooting of Evan Fournier inside the campus and without so many key players later in the seeding round, has been unable to answer and keep up their offensive intensity.

Conversely, the 3-point shot was critical in the wins over the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings. They made 11 and 18 3-pointers in those games respectively. Orlando’s three best 3-point shooting games came in their first three seeding round games. They are the only games where the Magic shot better than 35-percent from deep.

For the seeding round, Orlando is 19th of 22 teams in 3-point field goal percentage at 33.3 percent. None of the teams below them have a winning record in the bubble — the only one of note is the 3-4 Los Angeles Lakers, who have the worst 3-point shooting since the restart.

That has been part of the Magic’s biggest struggle throughout the season. They just do not have enough consistent shooting to carry the offense.

Defending the line

But a bigger problem has been bubbling beneath the surface for the Orlando Magic. Something that has really come to the front.

It is not so much the Magic have to worry about keeping up with 3-point shooting. They are not likely to be a consistent 3-point team. They had that nice spurt before the hiatus which showed how good their offense can be. But that was always viewed as a bit of an outlier. Everyone waited for them to come back to earth.

What the Magic have had to hang their hat on, but have struggled throughout the season, is their 3-point defense.

That was one of the Magic’s best traits from last year — a pillar of their defense.

Last year, Orlando gave up 34.7-percent 3-point shooting on 30.2 attempts per game. The percentage defense was 10th in the league and the attempts allowed per game were seventh.

This season, that has slipped considerably.

Before the season went on hiatus, the Magic gave up 33.4 3-point attempts per game (13th in the league) and 37.0-percent shooting (24th in the league). Those are both considerable slippages for a team with such a small margin for error.

Inside the campus, the Magic are giving up 35.4 3-point attempts per game (10th in the league) and 31.9-percent shooting on 3-pointers (third in the league). Orlando’s 3-point defense has faltered in some critical times and areas, but overall the team is at least getting the benefit of some missed threes.

This brings up an important observation about 3-point defense. A lot of it has to do with luck. There is at least some variance with 3-point shooting and teams are more likely to miss open 3-pointers than any other open shot.

So it is not uncommon to see a team give up more 3-pointers, but somehow have a better 3-point field goal defense.

It might be better to look at how many open 3-pointers the Magic give up.

Last season, the Magic gave up 35.7-percent shooting and the third-fewest attempts with the closest defender six feet or more away and the fourth-fewest attempts with the closest defender 4-6 feet away. What is amazing too is 77.6 percent of the team’s 3-pointers allowed were considered open.

Orlando did a good job controlling the 3-point line last year.

This season until the hiatus, the team gave up 38.1-percent shooting, including the seventh-fewest attempts with the closest defender 4-6 feet away. Those three percentage points are quite the change from last year. And 88.9 percent of the team’s 3-pointers allowed were either open or wide-open.

So the Magic gave up a higher percentage and more open 3-pointers than last year.

Inside the campus, those numbers have looked similar.

The Magic have given up 34.4-percent shooting on open 3-point attempts and the eighth-most wide-open 3-pointers (where the closest defender is more than six feet away) and the 10th-most open 3-pointers (where the closest defender is 4-6 feet away) since the season resumed.

Of their 3-point attempts, 84.9 percent are either open or wide open.

Judging by these numbers, the Magic may have benefited from some 3-point luck inside the bubble. Because generally, it does not appear the Magic’s 3-point defense is particularly good. It is no surprise that at key moments, they have been burned from deep.

No matter how you spin it, the Magic’s 3-point defense is nowhere near as good as it was last year.

Key factors

No doubt, 3-point shooting will be a key factor in the Orlando Magic’s upcoming playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Bucks are a team that likes to collapse the paint and prevent any kind of paint shots. They drop hard on any pick and rolls to prevent any kind of dribble penetration.

Milwaukee gives up the most 3-point attempts per game and the most wide-open 3-point attempts per game. They almost invite teams to shoot threes. As coach Steve Clifford describes them, the trick is not getting 3-point looks against them but quality kickout opportunities.

If you want to beat the Bucks, you will have to make 3-pointers at a consistent rate. Finding ways to get open shots and making those open shots is at the heart of defeating them.

Milwaukee also puts pressure on opponents by being a strong 3-point shooting team. Mike Budenholzer carries a five-out lineup with Giannis Antetokounmpo at the head attacking the basket downhill and kicking out to shooters at every position.

The Bucks are third in the league in 3-pointers made per game (although they are 17th in 3-point field goal percentage). The Bucks get the most wide-open 3-point attempts per game (21.2 per game).

Defending the 3-point line and making 3-pointers is going to be at the very heart of the team’s upcoming series.

Milwaukee has undoubtedly struggled since the season resumed. The team has increased its 3-point attempts to 41.3 per game, but their percentages have slipped to 34.9 percent (16th in the bubble).

Some of that might be Milwaukee going through some of the motions since the team wrapped up the top seed early.

No doubt though, 3-point shooting has proven itself to be a key element inside the bubble. The teams that have been able to make and prevent 3-pointers are succeeding. The others are clearly struggling.

As Orlando gets ready to face Milwaukee, 3-point shooting and defense might be what decides how far Orlando can go.