Orlando Magic still building trust and discipline on defense

The Orlando Magic are still getting on the same page defensively. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic are still getting on the same page defensively. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

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The timing of defense is everything.

How quickly players diagnose a play, react and execute can be the difference between a strong defensive stand or one that peters out quickly and gives up an open shot. Defense is about positioning and reaction. Being off on any part can betray good effort from your teammates.

Defense then takes a lot of discipline and focus. And you can usually tell which teams are engaged and playing at a high level by their defensive energy and execution. The players who are going to struggle to stay in the game are the ones who let their teammates down.

Usually, a lot of a team’s principles and coverages get implemented in training camp. Teams drill down on technique and rotations with the practice time to pause things and correct them or drill things into everyone’s psyche.

So what does a strong defensive-minded coach like Steve Clifford do with his new team? How does he build a strong defensive outfit with a roster that is completely different than the one he coached back in training camp and with limited practice and on-court time because of the pandemic-crunched schedule?

In some respects, nothing has changed for the Magic’s defense. But in others, everything has changed for the team.

The standard line from Steve Clifford and from players like Terrence Ross and Mohamed Bamba is that nothing has changed. The team is still holding true to its principles. But there is still a lot of struggle in the process as everyone gets adjusted to the team’s new reality.

"“We’re doing the same things but it is the new guys coming in and learn our tendencies and learn our principles,” Terrence Ross said after Friday’s 111-106 loss to the Indiana Pacers. “We do a little things differently. Our side and pick and roll are different than most teams. I know it can take some of the other guys a little longer to snap out of old habits but they are picking it up. For us, defensive chemistry is a big thing and we’ve got to do a little better job coming together on that.”"

The Magic have ridden the ups and downs since the trade deadline.

In Friday’s game, the team gave up 105.7 points per 100 possessions. That mark would rank as the second-best defense for the season. The team concedes 112.3 points per 100 possessions for the whole year and 113.9 points per 100 possessions since the trade deadline.

Particularly in the third quarter, the Magic increased their defensive intensity and precision after giving up 8-for-16 shooting from deep in the first. The Magic climbed back into the game on the strength of their defense — and clearly, the Magic’s biggest problem remains an inconsistent offense.

But the defense has faced wild swings, even within the same game.

Getting on the same page

There is new personnel with new abilities that the team can deploy. Indeed, the Orlando Magic have started blitzing screen and rolls a lot more since the trade deadline, a practice the team used sparingly with Nikola Vucevic at center.

There are new players shaking old habits from previous teams and learning what the team likes to do and what it is trying to do within its basic sets. On top of this, there are players coming back from injuries and plenty of young players prone to mistakes.

The Magic’s defensive is still a work in progress.

"“Obviously it’s not where we’d like it to be,” Clifford said of the team’s defense after Friday’s game. “It’s like anything, it’s a work in progress. There’s obviously a newness to our team. There are things again that we’ve got to be able to do if we want to win.”"

For now, the Magic seemed more intently focused on getting their rotations better and anticipating plays better.

Steve Clifford noted a late-game charge attempt from Cole Anthony as a sign of how off the team has been of late.

Here, Chuma Okeke is trying to force Caris LeVert along the baseline. With Domantas Sabonis at the elbow, Wendell Carter is late to cut off the lane to the basket. That gets the whole team late though.

Cole Anthony is the low man guarding T.J. McConnell in the corner two passes away. He should be planted firmly in the paint or able to get to the middle quickly to support the pick and roll defense. But he was late to commit to the play and gets caught in the charge circle as Sabonis drives the lane.

This was a critical play that stemmed the team’s momentum in its comeback effort.

But it also displays the lack of timing and consistency defensively. The Magic are still a step slow in a lot of areas defensively. And even some returning players are trying to get some of the new schemes down.

"“We’re trying to be as disciplined and be in the right spots as possible,” Mohamed Bamba said after Friday’s game. “We’re not changing a thing. That’s one of the things I admire about Cliff is he didn’t change anything, regardless of who was on our team. We are held to that standard. Whenever we are right and do the right things, we can be a top-5, top-10 team.”"

The Magic were much better defensively throughout the second half. They are mixing up their defensive coverages. But despite what everyone says, it seems the Magic are using less drop coverage since trading Vucevic.

Back to basics

Steve Clifford said the team’s base defense is still the same. But the nature of the modern NBA is to require teams to mix up coverages. No one can play the same coverage every play anymore.

The Orlando Magic are still getting down some of these basics. Compare two plays from Friday’s game.

In this first half play, the Magic are in drop coverage with Mohamed Bamba. Cole Anthony, whose man is late coming back into the play, is situated just above the free-throw line to repel any drives middle while Terrence Ross fights over the screen.

The play breaks down pretty quickly.

Cole Anthony does the right thing and tags Goga Bitadze to prevent a roll down the lane. Chuma Okeke has slid over to the middle to further prevent any drives. But Anthony moves too far over. Bitadze gives Anthony a solid bump and that gets him late to get back to McConnell.

That starts the scramble and R.J. Hampton is hugging Doug McDermott rather than staying tied to both men. He is not in a good position to cut off McConnell and he gets into the paint, collapsing the defense. Terrence Ross is late to get back out to the shooter and Aaron Holiday hits from deep.

The breakdown in this play is one purely of trust and positioning. Hampton is right to stay tied to McDermott. But the spacing between McDermott and McConnell is close enough that he could stay in contact with both while Anthony recovers.

A lot of defense is establishing this trust. If there is one thing familiarity and experience bring, it is this trust to know exactly where everyone is going to be.

"“It’s really difficult,” Bamba said after Friday’s game. “I think that if I build that chemistry with my teammates to the point they know I will be the last line of defense, it will put their minds at ease whenever they get beat or there is a cross-match.”"

The Magic got better and showed signs they can build that trust. Bamba specifically had a great play where he showed the power his length can provide as his teammates trust him more as a back-line defender.

The Pacers on this play try to run Doug McDermott off a curl. Gary Harris is trailing the play. Bamba is situated at the elbow to repel the drive and give Harris the room to get by the screen and contest any shot. Bamba’s job here is to be a presence to prevent any further drive into the paint.

Bitadze pops to the short corner and seemingly has a clear path to the basket when he receives the pass. But Bamba is already backtracking when he sees Harris is over the screen. And he is able to react quickly to the pass and challenge Bitadze’s dunk attempt, forcing a miss.

Bamba’s potential is still there and this was a sign of how he is getting better at diagnosing plays and making his presence a factor. It is still very inconsistent, however. That is the folly of young players. They are still learning the instincts to read and play these situations.

More playing time is helping him increase his confidence and awareness.

That will help every player on the Magic right now. The team needs more time on the court together to build their defensive trust and instincts. It is clear the team can do this. The Magic played a strong defensive game, all things considered, Friday night.

But Orlando still has a lot it needs to clean up to build the consistency they need.

Clifford is starting to use players in new ways and lean on different coverages a bit more than he might have with the team’s previous personnel. But the task now is getting everyone on the same page first of all.

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Only then will the team reach its full defensive potential.