Orlando Magic’s success will depend on eliminating the 3-point line

The Orlando Magic are struggling to limit the 3-point line this year and saw two straight losses where 3-point defense was a big problem.

Orlando Magic
98
Dallas Mavericks
112

The Orlando Magic were scrambling just to make it a six-point game at the half. The team had withstood a barrage from the Dallas Mavericks even as they struggled to make 3-pointers on their own.

In this modern NBA where teams are more than willing to fire away from beyond the arc, have a 3-point split of 10-2 against you is enough to bury teams in most instances. That just is not a sustainable way to play.

But there Orlando was. In the game and still in the fight. The difference in the first half was clearly 3-point shooting. Lock that down and the Magic might well be able to sneak out with a win and reclaim their identity.

Their start suggested they were game and brimming with confidence. Orlando built a six-point lead early in the third quarter.

But then Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke happened.

Hardaway scored 16 points, making three of his four 3-pointers, in the third quarter. He did this in the ways modern 3-point shooters make them. A stepback 3-pointer and even a pull-up from 30 feet away.

But mostly for Hardaway and Burke, who made seven of eight 3-pointers to get to 29 points, it was built off good ball movement and a defense that was not always on the same page. A defense that could stop the initial action but not the next one.

Dallas outshot Orlando from beyond the arc with 20 3-pointers to six. Making up 14 3-pointers is simply too big of a bridge for the Magic to climb. In the modern NBA, the 3-point line is not merely an equalizer but a weapon each team must have in their chest.

Orlando is clearly still trying to figure itself out after losing Markelle Fultz to a torn ACL. Everyone is playing new roles and taking on new responsibilities. But some things do not change.

The Magic need to break even at the 3-point line. And with a key player missing that was so central to everything Orlando does, the Magic at this point need to minimize the 3-point line completely.

“On both ends of the floor, we’re missing some really key guys obviously,” Aaron Gordon said after Saturday’s loss. “It’s going to take some time. A big part of our plan was having ‘Kelle. That was a big part of what we were doing. It’s always going to be a next-man-up mentality. But we have pros in this locker room and we expect people to step up. We’re pros, it shouldn’t take long to get. After three times, it shouldn’t be a thing. We should know what we’re doing technique-wise and know what our responsibilities are.”

Playing without Fultz

The Orlando Magic certainly cycled through a few defensive schemes to try to slow down the Dallas Mavericks. It was clear they were still out of practice with all of them with the groups playing together.

The Magic started out blitzing Luka Doncic to try to get the ball out of his hands. But their rotations were a bit off and the blitzers did not do a good job obscuring his field of vision. Doncic was able to feed the roll man in the middle of the court who could cycle it to the next 3-point shooter.

Orlando switched its defense in the third quarter and started dropping the big, inviting Doncic into the lane. Eventually, though, that caused the defense to sink and still left open shooters around the lane.

Much of the Magic’s struggles in the last two games is refiguring out how to play without a key player and with new combinations on the floor.

Each time though the Mavericks exploited the Magic’s defense that was still a step behind.

“What we really need is three days to practice,” Steve Clifford said after Saturday’s loss. “I think our attitude is good. We’re trying to fix things on the fly. Guys have a good attitude about it, but it;’s not easy. We have to hang in there. We need to find ways even in shootaround where we can make quicker improvement here with all these changes.”

The Common Thread

There is a common thread to the Orlando Magic’s losses to this point in the season. It all rests behind the 3-point line.

In the team’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Orlando Magic gave up 15 3-pointers. They gave up 22 3-pointers in the loss to the Houston Rockets and 13-for-41 shooting in the loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Orlando Magic have lost the four games it gave up the most 3-pointers (with a win over the Washington Wizards where they made 13 thrown in there for good measure). The Magic have now had three games where they gave up 3-point shooting better than 40-percent — all losses.

Three-point defense is not the whole game defensively for the Magic. They can certainly compete even if they give up decent percentages from deep. But with such a small margin for error, giving up 3-point shots at this rate is only going to hurt the team.

Especially since a strong 3-point defense was such a central tenet of the Magic’s defensive success the last two years.

Defending the 3-point line is very much about getting back to what made the Magic defense so good.

In 2019, the Magic ranked 10th in the league in 3-point field goal percentage allowed. The team gave up 34.7-percent shooting from deep. The real strength was in giving up only 30.2 attempts from deep per game, the seventh-best mark in the league.

Opponents shot 36.4-percent from deep against the Magic last year, 23rd in the league. But teams took only 33.6 attempts per game against Orlando, 12th in the league.

This season so far, the Magic are giving up 36.4-percent shooting from deep (12th in the league) and 33.8 attempts per game (13th in the league).

These stats do not tell the whole story obviously. There is always a bit of randomness with 3-point shooting. Statisticians will note that even good 3-point defense can lead to some variability as teams get hot from deep.

A better measure might be the quality of those shots.

Entering Saturday’s game, the Magic are giving up 17.2 3-point field goal attempts per game with the closest defender 6+ feet away, the 14th-fewest in the league. Opponents shoot 38.1-percent on those attempts, the 11th-best mark.

The Magic are giving up only 13.0 3-point field goal attempts per game with the closest defender is 4-6 feet away, the 10th-fewest in the league. Opponents shoot 31.6-percent on those attempts, the seventh-best mark in the league.

Last year, the Magic gave up the sixth-fewest “open” 3-point attempts and 12th-fewest “wide-open” 3-pointers. In 2019, the Magic gave up the sixth-fewest open 3-point attempts and fourth-fewest wide-open 3-point attempts.

Allowing few 3-point attempts is central to the Magic’s defense.

Overcoming randomness

It would seem then that there is some randomness going on here. The Orlando Magic’s 3-point defense may not be as bad as it seems. They are contesting — or at least in the vicinity of 3-point attempts — so far this year. They just happen to go in.

And the last two games were particularly bad — the Rockets had 23 “open” 3-point attempts and 22 “wide-open” 3-point attempts. Houston not only made 3-pointers but made a ton of open 3-pointers.

The Mavericks got their share of open 3-pointers (NBA.com tracking data was not available at the time of publishing).

But with the Magic hurting to create offense and hurting to make 3-pointers themselves — the Magic are 29th in 3-point field goal percentage — they have to find a way to tailor their defense to limit the impact of this shot severely.

The statistics on balance may well correct to reflect the team’s efforts on defense overall. Stats around the league are still very noisy.

But it is also clear the Magic’s defense can break down in severe ways. And when it does, the Magic have no way of making up that ground. Orlando had no chance to beat a Dallas team making half of its 40 3-pointers.

The Magic are not going to have much chance on most nights beating teams taking and making this many 3-pointers.

Orlando’s focus on stopping and containing pick and rolls is certainly their best bet to prevent 3-pointers. Open 3-pointers especially are usually the product of defensive breakdowns elsewhere.

But the Magic’s success or failures this season are going to come down to 3-point shooting. And it seeming unlikely Orlando will suddenly become great 3-point shooters, the team is going to have to do its best to reduce the randomness of 3-point shooting on defense.