Orlando Magic’s defense cannot carry a team lacking offensive force

Evan Fournier's turnover at the end of the game proved costly as the Orlando Magic could not find the offense to stay with the New York Knicks. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
Evan Fournier's turnover at the end of the game proved costly as the Orlando Magic could not find the offense to stay with the New York Knicks. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports /

Evan Fournier knew he made a mistake the moment he lept into the air.

With less than 20 seconds left, moments after he came up with a must-make 3-pointer to bring the Magic within one and then came up with a huge tie-up and jump ball to set up the opportunity to win, Evan Fournier was setting up a high pick and roll with Nikola Vucevic.

The Orlando Magic’s two best offensively players would work together to press an advantage and give the team a chance to steal a win from the New York Knicks and break their eight-game losing streak. This was the right play in every way.

Fournier knew the Knicks were going to blitz the screen and try to get the ball out of his hands. He knew the double was going to come to obscure his field of vision and keep him from getting it to Vucevic or attacking the paint.

He knew it a little bit too well.

Fournier anticipated the trap and looked to pass to Vucevic too early. Reggie Bullock got a hand on the ball and shoveled it to Alec Burks who ran to the other end of the court, running the clock out for a 94-93 win. All Fournier could do was stare in disbelief and frustration, tearing off his jersey before walking off the court.

The Orlando Magic frustratingly lost their ninth straight game as their defense showed up to give them a chance but their offense again could not deliver in the critical moments.

A golden opportunity slipped away after another strong defensive effort with little answer on how to right the ship.

"“I’m going to be fair to Reggie because he got a deflection, but really it was me being naive,” Evan Fournier said after Thursday’s game. The last two plays, they double-teamed me at the top of the key on the pick and roll and I anticipated that. I made a mistake. Instead of reading the play, I thought the play ahead and anticipated it. It’s really my fault.”"

A game is more than just the final plays that decide it. And while Fournier certainly had a nightmarish end to the game, giving up an and-1 basket that made it a five-point game with a minute to play, he was also the reason the Magic got back in the game.

He scored 13 of his 23 points in the final period as Orlando’s offense finally broke through with 27 points on 11-for-18 shooting with four 3-pointers. It was a sudden offensive burst on a night that was otherwise quiet once again offensively.

A night where the Magic’s defense was once again more than good enough to win. But once again came down to whether the Magic could get a shot or not. It is becoming clear that when Orlando needs a basket, it is not a good bet the team will get it.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The Magic were not able to back up a fourth straight strong defensive performance as that part of their identity and culture has resolidified in recent games.

Orlando posted a 102.2 defensive rating in the game, continuing the team’s strong run defensively since the All-Star Break. But none of it seemed to matter yet again. Orlando simply could not score enough to breakthrough.

In this NBA, giving up 94 points should be more than enough to win. Indeed, the Magic have had above-average defensive performances in each of their last four games. The offense just has not come along with it.

And especially late in games, the ability to create shots and execute off the dribble just like that situation Fournier found himself in is paramount.

Orlando missed plenty of open shots. The team seemed content with the kind of looks it got throughout the game. But that is not enough. Results matter. This was a game where the Magic made only 10 of 34 3-pointers, missing many of them wide open including a go-ahead attempt with 40 seconds left from Dwayne Bacon.

But it has to be something more than that. The Magic’s offense continually seems to betray the team’s efforts.

"“That’s the question,” coach Steve Clifford said after Thursday’s game. “It’s going to start with us defending. There’s not a lot of points in our roster. I told them that at the beginning of the year when we have everybody. Our goal was to be a top-15, 16, 17 offensive team. We’ve got to get back in rhythm. Offense is going to be a challenge for this group, that’s just the way it. That’s the way our team is built.”"

It is no secret the Magic are a bad offensive team — they have fallen to 28th in the league in offensive rating this season at 104.8 points per 100 possessions — but the team’s offense has not held the team back quite in this way.

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Orlando has not had an offense that finished in the top half of the league since the 2012 season. The team has not been outside the top-20 in offensive rating since that time. The Magic’s offense during the 2019 breakthrough was still only 22nd in the league.

This is not a team with a dynamic offensive attack. It has its moments for sure and can go through spurts, but the Magic’s struggles are as much because of the lack of offensive talent as anything else.

As teams have expanded their offensive attacks and taken offensive efficiency to new levels, the Magic have not kept up — only seemingly rising with the tide rather than making their own waves.

The injuries this year have only worsened the problem for this specific group. But even before Markelle Fultz’s injury, the Magic ranked just 18th in the league in offensive rating at 108.8 points per 100 possessions and slipping.

This team has no real offensive force. And this is what is holding the team back and making it harder to get through this season.

"“I think it’s a mix of things,” Nikola Vucevic said after Thursday’s game. “It depends on each game. Tonight we had some good looks that we usually make that we didn’t convert. Sometimes it’s the rhythm of the offense and how we play and how well we execute and how quickly we make the right play and right read. Sometimes, we tend to wait a little bit to move the ball. . . . I think also with so many guys injured, it’s so many different lineups out there.”"

Clifford is good at building a foundation and using defense as the base for a team to grow. That is still the right approach even in a league that is making defenses look sillier and sillier.

Orlando, for its part, has struggled to get its defense together all year. The team ranks 17th in the league in defensive rating, giving up 111.7 points per 100 possessions. This after two straight years occupying a spot as one of the top-10 defenses in the league.

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This has to be the team’s identity. Offensive reinforcements are not likely coming until the offseason. If even then.

The message Clifford is giving his team that the Magic have to be a top-10 defensive team after the All-Star Break. If they do that, they will give themselves a chance to win. Just like they did Thursday.

In the four games since the All-Star Break, the Magic have done that. They are fifth in the league, giving up 106.2 points per 100 possessions. But they also own the worst offense in those four games at 96.4 points per 100 possessions.

The question is how long will the team stay committed to its defense with the offense struggling so much. That commitment to the team’s identity will be the most important thing that Orlando has to maintain even as this season continues to move off the rails.

But the reality is still staring the Magic in the face. No matter how well a team defends, it goes nowhere without a team that can score a bit on its own. It undoubtedly increases the margin for error and gives the defense more cover.

Orlando’s defense has looked better the past week. But it is not enough.

Next. Orlando Magic still believe they can finish strong. dark

None of this is unfortunately new for the Magic.