Orlando Magic Playbook: Orlando Magic go to the zone to find their way to win

The Orlando Magic's zone defense confused and stifled the Houston Rockets to score a win. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic's zone defense confused and stifled the Houston Rockets to score a win. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports /

169. Final. 116. 38. 110

The Orlando Magic were dead in the water.

The Houston Rockets were blowing by and shooting threes at will against a defense that looked a step slow and perhaps uninterested in playing. The Magic’s offense was not doing much better unable to find a great rhythm and turning the ball over excessively.

The team said all the right things after Monday’s loss about rebuilding their streak and sticking to the process that helped them win six straight. But the team was facing the letdown that can come from the last game of a road trip and the folly of youth.

Down by 15 points and looking headed toward a loss, coach Jamahl Mosley said his coaching staff knew they needed to change something to create some energy. The team and players knew they needed to change something and change their mindset.. They had to bring better focus on the defensive end.

So the team switched to a 2-3 zone and it proved to be a major catalyst for the team.

Suddenly they were confounding the Rockets, getting into them physically, switching and passing players off effectively and getting deflections and steals. This is how the Magic wanted to play and it powered them back into the lead, quickly erasing that 15-point deficit.

The Orlando Magic’s switch to a zone defense proved to be a decisive factor in re-energizing the team and helping them pick up a win.

That is what ultimately powered the team to a 116-110 victory over the Rockets at Toyota Center on Wednesday. That zone defense was at the heart of that success. And it was a strategy change that deeply impacted the game.

The numbers really do say it all (courtesy of Houston Sports Radio 610’s Adam Spolane):

Clearly, the zone defense is not always effective. The Magic have had their ups and downs with it all season. Throughout the year it has been used as a changeup to try to slow other teams down and give them a new look, something to give them pause and disrupt their rhythm.

During the team’s six-game win streak, the Magic rarely played zone defense because their man-to-man was so effective. But in the last two games, the Magic have struggled to get into the ball effectively or guard pick and rolls.

This change became necessary as the Rockets hit nine 3-pointers in the first half just to mix things up and give the Rockets a different look.

Orlando eventually went down 15 points early in the third quarter before calling a timeout and switching to a zone defense. Almost immediately, it paid dividends.

This was the first play the Rockets faced with the Magic sitting in their zone. It is easy to see before even hitting play why the Rockets struggled. There are no players in the paint and the Magic are able to clog space and still be in good help position.

Kevin Porter Jr. tries to split the two defenders, getting them to collapse and pick the shooter he wants. Paolo Banchero is slid up to guard both Jalen Green on the wing and Eric Gordon in the corner. But Kevin Porter opts to go to Jabari Smith.

There is no dribble penetration or sense of attack though. The pass is too quick and Franz Wagner flies to Jabari Smith in time to contest the shot.

This is the first element of the Magic’s zone defense. Everyone is completely on the same page and knows where opposing offensive players are and how to get to them or pass to the next man. But Houston is so passive here that this is simply too easy for Wagner to defend.

Smith misses badly and the Magic run out for a layup by Moe Wagner.

In fact, the Rockets missed their first seven shots against the zone defense, including three 3-point attempts (including a momentum-building 3-point block from Bol Bol that went four rows deep). There just was not any attacking force in what the Rockets were trying to do. They were not even really able to score until Alperen Sengun started working the middle of the zone.

Even within the Magic in a zone defense, they still used good man-to-man principles. This looked like the defense that helped build that six-game win streak.

Orlando went to a zone, but it really worked to simplify the team’s help responsibilities and force the team to sharpen its defensive communication. Houston was simply unsure how to attack all the length in front of them as Orlando tightened up its attention to detail.

This was among the four turnovers the Rockets had in the third quarter (and 12 for the second half).

Houston was struggling to make these interior passes or kick-out passes because Orlando was constantly able to keep bodies in front and in the field of vision of anyone trying to get into the lane.

This is something the Magic did quite successfully during the winning streak, even though they were playing man-to-man.

First, it starts with Franz Wagner playing some fantastic defense on Jalen Green to keep him in front and from penetrating too deep into the zone. Bol Bol steps up while Paolo Banchero covers Alperen Sengun in the paint.

The exposed part of the zone despite Franz Wagner’s solid defense is Jabari Smith on the win. But Markelle Fultz has that covered, sinking into Green’s field of vision between him and Smith and Porter. He at least is able to stunt it.

By the time Green is able to make that pass out to Smith, Bol has already gotten back into the paint to guard Sengun and Banchero has already closed out to contest. Everyone has covered their area effectively to close out any opportunities to score in the paint.

But Banchero bites on the pump fake, exposing the zone to another drive. Instead of passing to Green in the corner for a wide-open three, all Smith can see is the bodies in front of him not the open man behind him. Bol Bol is at the basket protecting the rim, Markelle Fultz is beside him to contest the jumper and Moe Wagner is in the opposite corner to close down the opportunity for Kenyon Martin Jr.

That leaves only one outlet — Porter Jr. at the top of the key. But Franz Wagner is quick to the attack and this is where the Magic’s length makes this zone so potentially deadly. He is able to shoot into the passing lane with ease and go the other way for a layup.

That tied the game was indicative of how the Magic played throughout the second half.

Notice then too how seamlessly everyone moves together. There are very few wasted movements and players pass players to the next within the zone seamlessly. These are the same principles the team uses when they go to their switching defense.

All of that became activated to create energy and power the offense. It helped the team push the pace and jumpstart the offense.

It even continued when the bench group came in.

On this play, it does not look like the Magic are in the zone because they are essentially still in a matchup look. Terrence Ross directs Tari Eason toward the baseline, his designated zone area, but he has climbed up to the perimeter to defend the 3-point line.

Tari Eason is able to get by Terrence Ross but Mo Bamba is able to contest whatever he decides to do next. Bamba is actually late getting there because Admiral Schofield has already sunk down to defend and box out Usman Garuba.

Eason goes up for the layup when Bamba is already challenging him. Eason then becomes indecisive and abandons his shot at the rim because of Bamba’s presence and he makes a back out to the perimeter. Kevon Harris is waiting and makes the steal.

The zone created a lot of this indecision, giving the Magic plenty to take advantage of.

This is a team tied on a string. Everyone is helping each other and moving to cover for each other. This was the effort the team was missing earlier in the game. And that is what the zone unlocked in them.

The zone flummoxed the Rockets, eventually putting them in a mode where they were making unforced errors. That is ultimately what clinched the game defensively for Orlando. The Magic were confident and this team is dangerous when they are confident like this.

The Magic’s run to get back into the game started with their defense. It fed their offense and gave them the energy to get out in transition. It brought the team together and woke them up.

Next. After the Orlando Magic's win streak, what's next matters more. dark

However it needs to happen, I guess. But the Magic were able to use a lot of their man-to-man principles within this zone defense to sharpen themselves and throw the ultimate curveball to power them to a win.