The Orlando Magic lost their sixth consecutive game, falling short against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Monday. Their defense was better, but still showing signs of weakness.
Orlando’s offense was entirely dependent on Nikola Vucevic, who started the game 4 for 5 from the field with nine points in a little less than three minutes of play. After Vucevic took his usual rest around the midway point of the quarter, the Magic lost their offensive groove and scored just 54 points through the first three quarters.
The Magic defense held its own against a young Knicks team that has been explosive to start the season. Orlando allowed New York to score just 66 points in return, posting an 91.7 defensive rating in the first three-quarters of play. New York scored just 19 points in both the first and third quarters.
The team finished 94.8 defensive rating, the second-best defensive rating for the Magic this season.
However, many of New York’s easiest opportunities came out of the pick-and-roll, an inauspicious theme that has developed for the Magic defense over this losing streak.
The Magic have been failing to communicate, both at the ball and on the weak-side, and it appears that either the team hasn’t implemented Steve Clifford’s system correctly or the Magic coach is tweaking coverages to optimize for the opponent.
When analyzing these defensive decisions it is important to remember the Magic, like the rest of the league, was faced with a shortened training camp and preseason. Their rotation has also been further decimated by injuries.
But these excuses, as legitimate as they may be, do not absolve the Magic of their lackluster defensive performance over the previous week-plus.
A team that prides itself on being a strong defensive team is currently ranked 21st in the league in defensive rating. That will not be good enough to get the team where it wants to be at the end oof the season.
A particularly glaring example came early in the first quarter in New York when the Magic allowed Knicks sophomore guard R.J. Barrett to attack toward his dominant left-hand for an easy finish:
Gary Clark is the player to watch as the defender matched up with the screener, New York’s Nerlens Noel. Notice that as the play develops he does not make his presence known to either Knicks player involved in the action — stuck in what coaches call “no man’s land.”
Rather than making a contest on the dribble drive, Clark hangs back in a “drop” coverage and spectates Barrett’s easy drive for two points.
Two nights earlier in Brooklyn against James Harden and the reimagined Nets, the Magic made similar mistakes.
With respect to Clifford and the Magic, it is much harder to execute this coverage correctly on-the-fly in real-time than when nitpicking on film. But Bone is not in a position to make an impact on either the roller or his own man spaced in the corner.
Harden continued to feast on the Magic in the pick-and-roll the rest of Saturday night.
The Magic consistently played in a drop to contain Harden’s dribble-drive, a good decision given his propensity to get to the free-throw line. Nikola Vucevic plays the drop, but there is no communication on the exchange between him and Terrence Ross, leaving Jeff Green with a warm-up attempt from outside.
The same miscommunication, this time between Terrence Ross and Aaron Gordon, happened again on a pivotal possession in the fourth quarter:
Ross comes to trap the ball handler with Aaron Gordon, which is not a great strategy if the player you are leaving open is Kevin Durant, maybe still the best pure scorer in the world.
Again, no team is well-equipped to properly defend a Harden-Durant pick-and-roll, but this shot is too easy for the Nets. Too much space and too much rhythm for Durant.
The Magic are still getting used to some new defensive rotations. The Magic used drop coverages heavily last year, but they have been blitzing pick and rolls more this year. Clifford said it is something teams have to do now. They cannot run the same coverage as offenses have become much more sophisticated.
On Friday against the Boston Celtics, the Magic’s overall energy and defensive pressure were lacking. It was obvious reviewing the film, players were not fighting over screens or keeping their arms extended.
A couple of defensive mishaps — either due to an abject effort from the players or a poor gameplan — provided the Celtics with easy opportunities at pivotal moments of the action.
Here, Vucevic stays in a drop so deep that Jaylen Brown can take a rhythm dribble before pulling up for an uncontested 3-point attempt:
Brown is a much-improved 3-point shooter so far this season with a 40-percent accuracy from beyond the arc. Again, Gordon and Vucevic need to communicate on this play, which starts with knowing the personnel involved.
The lack of defensive pressure is even more frustrating given that Jayson Tatum was sidelined due to COVID protocols and Kemba Walker had yet to make his return from a knee injury suffered in the NBA Bubble. Brown is the most formidable offensive threat on the floor for the Celtics.
The advanced tracking numbers also point to the Magic conceding too much to the pick-and-roll “roll man”, that is, the player setting the screen. Orlando’s defense is allowing 1.34 points per possession out of pick-and-roll to such players, the worst mark in the league per NBA Stats.
In contrast, they are allowing the pick-and-roll ball handler to score 0.9 points per possession in a small sample size. This further bolsters the argument for enhanced communication between the two defenders involved to avoid overemphasizing focus on the ballhandler.
Orlando has other coverage options, they could look to switch such plays. But this roster, especially without Jonathan Isaac and Michael Carter-Williams, is lacking the multi-faceted defensive depth that can execute switches without a hitch.
For Clifford and his team, the upcoming stretch should provide them with some relief after their gauntlet against the league’s best teams.
The Orlando Magic’s next four games come against the similarly injury-depleted Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday, a final road matchup with the much-improved Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis on Friday, and a return home to host a back-to-back against their divisional rival Charlotte Hornets next weekend.
Small changes, like explicit focus on communication and better weak-side help rotations, should solve some of the defensive woes the Magic have experienced the past week. Lesser competition should provide them with a sandbox environment to implement these changes.
The Magic did not pass the sniff test against the NBA’s best teams. But it is not too late for them to recover and make the push back above .500. They’ll look to correct course on Wednesday in Minneapolis.