‘Pitiless’ defensive effort needs to be Orlando Magic’s wake-up call

Cole Anthony was still catching his breath as he sat down for his postgame press conference.

He had just scored 33 points and dished out eight assists as the Orlando Magic tried to keep up with the Sacramento Kings. It took all the effort in the world just to keep the Magic within 12 points and try to scrounge out enough to make the competitive at the end.

No one will fault the Magic for their effort or their desire to win. They were pushing to the end and expending all their energy to get back into the game.

That has generally been the feeling throughout the season. Their effort has never been the issue. It is just where that effort was directed.

It is easy to push aside blowout losses because the errors and mistakes in them are so obvious. Wednesday’s 142-130 loss to the Sacramento Kings was something different though.

This was a game where the Magic uncharacteristically had their rhythm offensively and had several players score seemingly at will. But none of it mattered without getting stops to build momentum.

The Orlando Magic wanted to be about their defense to start their rebuild. But that defense has been increasingly failing them of late.

This was the exact game the Kings wanted — going back and forth at a breakneck pace. That is Sacramento’s identity.

More than a quarter of the way through the season, Orlando is still seeking its identity. The Magic want to be a defensive team that plays with energy and scrappiness. But Wednesday’s game was a wake-up call of how far the team still has to go to reach it.

“We were playing right into their hands,” Cole Anthony said after Wednesday’s loss. “That’s what they want to do. They want to get out there and score a bunch. I’m sure [coach Jamahl Mosley] told you that’s not how we want to play. We don’t want to do that. We want to guard and we have to guard. It’s pitiful what we did tonight.”

The Magic’s 142 points allowed were the most allowed in a game this season and the ninth time allowing more than 120 points. Orlando’s 140.6 defensive rating in the game is by far the worst of the season.

The end result of the game is the Magic now sit last in the league in defensive rating, giving up 113.0 points per 100 possessions. It would be fair to call the Magic the worst team in the league too with a league-worst -10.7 net rating.

This is not who the team wants to be. Not even close.

Orlando is going through one of the most difficult parts of its schedule right now. It was somewhat expected for the Magic to struggle with it.

Still, the team needed to form its identity in the fire. They spoke all camp about being a defensive-minded team and getting into the ball and increasing the defensive pressure.

Wednesday’s loss saw guards able to get into the lane with ease and drive through without any physicality. This was the worst example of the Magic’s lagging defense. But certainly a clear signal of issues the team has faced throughout the year.

“We need to sit down and guard,” Mosley said after Wednesday’s loss. “We talked about getting into the basketball. I’ll go back and look at the film and see how many times we crawled into the ball or whether it was a blow by. We have to do a better job protecting the rim and having someone there to protect us. It started with the ball pressure. We got some turnovers going. But 142 is too much.”

The Magic were not going to point to any one thing for the defensive problems Wednesday. It was everything.

When Anthony was asked to elaborate where things went wrong, he said it was everything. It was the team’s inability to defend one-on-one, to rotate and protect the rim, to cracking back to help on the glass, to rotating quicker into their spots. Every aspect of the defense was just off.

And it has seemingly been off for a while. The Orlando Magic had two solid defensive games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets (both close games with a win over the Nuggets) but have not been able to build on those.

The bottom line is the Magic want to be a defensive team and know that defense is their best ticket to winning games.

“We got into a shootout and lost,” Anthony said after Wednesday’s loss. “That’s not how we want to play. We’ve got to be better than that. We’ve got to hold ourselves to a higher standard and at the end of the day have the mentality that we want to guard.”

This is more of what the problem gets to.

The Magic want to be a defensive team. That is how they have shaped their roster in the early going of their rebuild and where they have put a lot of the focus on their player development.

At various times this season, the Magic have looked strong defensively, even if they could not sustain it for 48 minutes and even if their own offensive struggles were creating disadvantages defensively. Orlando was hanging its hat on being a strong defensive team when it was able to get its defense set — in reality, the team was always in the middle of the pack at best in this metric.

That has gone by the wayside as injuries have taken hold of the roster and the frustration of losing has eaten at this team. Wednesday was just a worst-case scenario.

And it needs to serve as a wake-up call for the team to dig back in defensively.

This season needs to be about forming the beginnings of this team’s identity for when it is ready to win. And the Magic, right now, are regressing on that front.

“We’re going to continue to say it and keep hitting home on it that the defensive side of the floor is what travels,” Mosley said after Wednesday’s loss. “We can’t get into a shootout with certain teams. We’ve got to make sure we are sitting down and guarding and taking pride on the defensive side of the floor.”

The task for the Magic has always been tall.

Anthony said the team can’t rely on half efforts to win. They need their best every single night just to have a chance to win games. That is at least the standard he feels the Magic need to hold themselves to.

Orlando’s starter/bench split certainly shows the team is going to be working uphill on a lot of nights. Here too it is clear why the team’s defense has to be its focus and identity. Good defense will help limit the frustrations of those units and give the starters the chance to win games — something they have shown they can do.

Really, this is just about the team’s focus and understanding what this team wants to be. And for sure Orlando has let go of the rope.

Wednesday should serve as a reminder of how much work is still left to go and how important it is for the Magic to find something they can hang their hat on as they begin this rebuild.

Otherwise, the results will remain disastrous and the team will not have the progress and idea of who they are they need to begin rebuilding.