Defense is the base for the Orlando Magic to grow

The Orlando Magic's defense swarmed Stephen Curry and made it hard for him to get going as their defense continues to improve. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic's defense swarmed Stephen Curry and made it hard for him to get going as their defense continues to improve. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images) /

38. Final. 120. 41. 124

A lot of things were at work with eight minutes to play in the game. The Orlando Magic trailed the Golden State Warriors by 13 points, having seen a 30-point swing in the second half. The game was getting away from them and they needed to buckle down.

Coach Steve Clifford said he has a plan for how he wants the rotations to work and iterations he has to consider for shifting the rotation depending on how the game goes. This was an emergency though. He was going to go back to his best lineup.

That meant bringing back Nikola Vucevic. He knew as he entered the game that the team would have to do something. He would have to be more aggressive and make plays to bring the team together.

On the other end was rookie Chuma Okeke.

He has not even played 15 games in his career to this point. In many ways, it is clear how much he is still trying to make up for the year he lost last year recovering from a torn ACL. He is getting his time on the court.

And for the first time, he played the end of a close game. And he made play after play to earn that confidence and trust. Something that may be a prelude to more.

The Magic built a 15-point first-quarter lead and a 17-point third-quarter lead on the strength of an improving defense. They erased that fourth-quarter 13-point deficit because of their defense.

The Orlando Magic are picking up wins again as their defense is picking up steam again and finding the consistency and habits they need to succeed.

Okeke made the most outstanding defensive plays. With 4.5 minutes to play and the Magic still trailing by six, Chuma Okeke rotated over as Stephen Curry sprung free toward the basket on a cut through the lane. He lifted up and blocked the shot, staying put in time to dig out the loose ball after Nikola Vucevic batted it into the air.

Okeke would get rewarded on that ensuing possession, draining a 3-pointer to bring the game within three points. He would hit another one a few minutes later to give the Magic the lead for good.

The team rewarded their rookie for his defensive effort and he rewarded them with a confident and poised performance down the stretch.

"“Making big plays on defense is always going to be energizing to the team because we work on it every day,” Okeke said after Friday’s win. “To see it done in a live game, that just motivates everyone to do it. We’re setting a high standard to make plays on defense. Defense turns into quick and easy offense and that’s what happened.”"

As it is with all things for the Magic, it starts on the defensive end. Everything for the team grows from that end of the floor.

Why are the Magic playing a lot better now, having won three of four games and winning consecutive games for the first time since Markelle Fultz’s injury in January? It is because of their defense.

The fourth-quarter comeback — keyed by a 31-17 run to finish the game — was all about the team’s defense. Orlando gave up a 100.0 defensive rating and 9-for-24 shooting to the vaunted Warriors offense to make that comeback happen.

The game total of a 113.7 defensive rating does not look great — that 43-point third quarter that gave the Warriors the lead weighs heavily on the Magic. But that did not take away from how much the defense has keyed the Magic’s sudden revival.

Outside of the third quarter, the Magic gave up a 97.5 defensive rating in 79 possessions. Since the West Coast road trip began last week entering Friday’s game, the Magic were giving up 105.6 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark in the league in that time.

"“I think it’s just throughout the season you start getting better at certain things,” Terrence Ross said after Friday’s win. “This is one of the things we’ve gotten better at. There’s really not much you can do when it comes to practicing. We don’t have that much time anymore. Like Cliff says, there are certain things you don’t have to practice to make an adjustment and get better at. We just have to come out there with the right kind of focus and do what we’re supposed to do.”"

Evan Fournier said Michael Carter-Williams’ return has done wonders for the defense.

His game Friday was the picture of what the Magic envision with the defense being more important than the offense.

He made only 2 of 13 shots, missing some wide-open 3-pointers and layups in the process. But he stuck with Stephen Curry for much of the game, making his shots tough. Curry made only 11 of 29 shots and 6 of 16 from deep.

The Magic broke several of their defensive rules as part of their gameplan, leaving Carter-Williams to faceguard Curry for much of the game, even to the point of not rotating to the corner to make sure someone stayed on Curry at all times.

Curry still got his with 29 points, but it was a lot of work to get there.

That is what good defense is all about. And that is the backbone for the Magic’s success.

It is impossible not to mention the third quarter where the Magic gave up 43 points and a 17-point lead. That led to the hole the team buried itself in during the fourth quarter.

It was a poor defensive quarter where the Warriors used the team’s desire to attack the offensive glass against them, leaking players out in transition off shots and getting to the basket before the team’s defense could get set.

"“What hurt us in the third quarter is when things started going badly on offense, we stopped running back on defense,” Clifford said after Friday’s game. “We can’t do that. That part is frustrating to me.  You’ve got to have a way to play and you’ve got to play it regardless of the score. That’s what we’ve been good about the last two years and that’s where we have to get to.”"

That is at least a statement of how fragile the Magic’s defense can still be. Even when the team is scoring at an effective clip.

Still, Clifford said he would be interested to look at the tape and see how well the team played with its half-court defense. The team is starting to regain that identity.

The Magic’s defense has been their calling card for the last two years. Fournier said the shortened training camp and all the changes to the team may have led to some of their habits slipping. But it feels like things are starting to click and the defensive habits that would normally get built earlier in the season are starting to take root.

Increasingly then, it is the players who are defending and defending well that are getting the opportunity. Okeke stayed in the game largely on his defense and defensive effort. Clifford went with the flow of the game to stick with the rookie.

He made play after play on that end, opening a lot of eyes around the league to his potential as he continues to get comfortable. It is only going to lead to more confidence and more playing time with this team.

Next. Terrence Ross has found his spark. dark

More importantly, with the Magic realizing how much defense is the key to their success, it is going to lead to the team starting to turn things around.