Orlando Magic Playbook: Orlando Magic make paint defense their calling card

Wendell Carter and the Orlando Magic are trying to build their defense from the paint out. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Wendell Carter and the Orlando Magic are trying to build their defense from the paint out. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic continue to know the truth about their team and where they need to go.

They believe they are a defensive team. They know they have all the tools to be a strong defensive team. Opponents talk about the challenge of going up against their speed, size and versatility. They can present several problems to teams defensively too.

The team can oscillate between man-to-man with Wendell Carter in a drop protecting the paint as more long-limbed players collapse the paint and make kick-outs difficult. They can switch perimeter screens with ease because of their length and versatility. Or they could sit back in a zone and use their length to suffocate teams and make simple acts difficult.

This is the potential of the team’s defense. A potential that has been on display as the Magic win and has struggled when the team loses.

The Orlando Magic are still building their defensive identity. It has started with one focus, looking to the paint and protecting the paint as a big key to win.

Nothing is bigger in their wins and losses than their defense. And the team is still carving a defensive identity. With the main focus early on in defending the paint first and foremost.

"“I think that is our calling card as a team,” Paolo Banchero said after the Orlando Magic’s win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday. “When we play good defense, we usually play good offense. That is the common theme that has stuck with us this year. We just have to bring that effort as much as we can every night, every game.”"

Orlando clearly has the length to be a factor defensively. They have used it well to deploy switching schemes.

The Magic sit at 25th in the league in defensive rating at 114.5 points allowed per 100 possessions. That is hardly an encouraging place for a team that claims it is hanging its hat on the defensive end.

Since the team started this winning stretch, beginning with the home loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 5, their defense has been an anchor. The Magic are ninth in the league since Dec. 5 at 112.5 points allowed per 100 possessions.

It is a noticeable improvement. And this is clearly a big factor when the team wins.

The Magic have a 107.0 defensive rating when the team wins compared to 118.7 when they lose (they have a 116.5 offensive rating in wins and a 107.5 offensive rating when they lose). These numbers are in the middle of the pack comapred to other team’s wins and losses. The Magic’s offensive rating in wins is 24th among teams when they win.

Defense truly is the team’s calling card.

"“That’s what we are,” Gary Harris said after Wednesday’s win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. “We are a defensive team. If we are getting stops on defense, it’s going to be hard night for anybody. We know how talented we are on offense. We’ve got to lock in on defense. Once we do that, we can get out and we can run, we can share the ball and get easy looks.”"

The Magic say it all the time how their defense is what will lead to their offense and easier offense at that. So much of what the Magic want to do offensively is based off their ability to get stops just like much of their defensive success is built on limiting their own turnovers and mistakes.

Orlando has put a lot of its focus defensively in protecting the paint. The team hopes its length can help clean up mistakes get back out ot the 3-point line. Part of the Magic’s success in winning eight of nine games was due to some 3-point luck.

The Magic give up 48.6 points in the paint per game (12th in the league). In wins, that number drops to 43.0 points per game (the best mark in the league when teams win). But it rises to 51.7 points in the paint per game in losses.

This is a huge contrast for the team. And this week’s games were a perfect example of that.

In the Magic’s win over the Thunder, the team held one of the best teams at attacking the paint to just 30 points in the paint. This displayed why the Magic can be so good defensively:

In this play from Wednesday’s game, Wendell Carter switches onto Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. This is a feature of the Magic’s defense. They have versatile bigs who can get on the perimeter.

But defending the paint is a team job. Everyone is in a good help position to scramble and help impede any drives, especially with Carter defending the quicker Gilgeous-Alexander.

Markelle Fultz makes the big read here, leaving his man to block the shot. The Magic use that block to start a fast break that ends with Fultz getting a putback.

This is the ideal of how the Magic want to build things. It takes everyone putting in an effort and an extra effort to get these stops. Orlando has done this more and more. It starts in the paint. And it was exactly how the Magic wanted to respond after three sluggish games.

And that is what did not happen in the loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday.

The Grizzlies scored 64 points in the paint. It was a big factor in the win.

The game really changed in the second quarter though as the Magic’s bench unit struggled to get any stops in the paint. Memphis had 24 points in the paint on 12-for-13 shooting in the second quarter alone.

The Magic got beat early in that quarter because of late rotations and straight line drives when the player at the point of attack was not in a good defensive stance. The Grizzlies played with more force.

But there were also plays like this one:

Here, the starters have started to cycle back in, but they are struggling to get themselves set and crowd any player driving into the paint.

Paolo Banchero and Wendell Carter are trying to navigate this flare action after Jaren Jackson Jr. hands the ball off to Tyus Jones. Jackson had hit a few 3-pointers at this point, so they were right to be wary of him and navigate this Xavier Tillman screen.

But this is not the Magic’s philosophy.

Neither Banchero nor Carter are in a great position to help in the paint. And while Franz Wagner is in the lane early as he should be, he has to be worried about Tyus Jones making a direct pass to Ziaire Williams in the corner.

Wagner does not really commit to being in the paint and drifts out of it as Jones drives the lane. Carter is late to get back into position and this turns into an easy layup.

This is just an example of poor communication and how out of sync the Magic were as the Grizzlies played aggressively in the second quarter.

The Magic clearly got frustrated some with their poor shooting in this game and it affected their defense with some of the lazy fouling they had. It all seemed to snowball.

"“You can say you hang your hat on the defensive end as many times as you want, we have to continue to understand that when shots aren’t faling, you really have to do that,” Mosley said after Thursday’s loss. “You have to dig down, sit down and guard and allow your defense to create your offense to create easy baskets so you don’t have to chase them.”"

It is cliche, but teams do have to take it one play at a time. And nobody is going to make a comeback unless they get stops. Magic players said after the game that they felt they were running good offense but simply missing shots. That only added to the frustration.

It all changed as the Magic stayed with things in the fourth quarter. Just compare the Magic’s paint defense in the fourth quarter to the clip above:

In this set up, Dillon Brooks is trying to run a pick and roll with Steven Adams. Carter is set up at the free throw line to cover the middle in drop coverage. The Magic have three players in the paint and Fultz in good help position. Everyone is in a position to collapse on the ball-handler or to scramble back and contest a shot.

That is exactly what happens here. Dillon Brooks passes to John Konchar in the corner and Franz Wagner quickly rotates back to close out the three. Konchar puts the ball on the floor and Wagner makes a great effort to stay in front, knock the ball away and deliver the steal.

While this is not a shot that happens in the paint, it is because of the Magic’s paint defense they are able to get this stop.

Orlando is still working to get consistency on defense — the Grizzlies made 12 of 19 shots in the fourth quarter and the inability to get a stop down the stretch ended those comeback hopes..

Some of that will come as their rotation solidifies after bringing back Carter and Harris. Jalen Suggs’ return should also boost the team’s defense.

Next. Paolo Banchero refuses to be stopped. dark

It is clear though how key paint defense is to Orlando’s success. And how important defense is to the identity the team is trying to cultivate.