The Orlando Magic believe they have a good defense.
They know they have the talent and the players to do it. Slowly but surely the team’s focus and attention to detail are increasing as they get a taste of winning more and more.
Like so many things, the Magic can taste how close they are to turning a corner and having everything click in. Nowhere does that seem like it is so close than with the team’s defense.
On their West Coast road trip, the Magic had some tantalizing defensive moments. They buckled down to erase a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit in Salt Lake City against the Utah Jazz, taking a late lead after trailing by double digits for much of the game. They did the same against the Denver Nuggets, again taking a late lead and putting the result in the balance.
This shows how close the Magic are to getting over that hill. They returned from their longest road trip of the season a respectable 2-3, but everyone on the team believes they should have been 4-1.
What will it take to get over that hump? How close are the Magic really?
The Orlando Magic are seeing how good they can be as they grow and develop. But to become the defensive team they want to be, they have to refocus on the details and especially on rebounding.
That is going to be seen in the little plays and the focus and consistency the team can find on the floor each night. And for now, those losses are most frustrating because of what the Magic left on the board.
"“We usually play a good 20-22 seconds of defense and it’s the rebound that messes it up for us,” Wendell Carter said after practice on Wednesday. “I think we are one of the better defensive teams in this league. But we aren’t going to get that credit until we start finishing out possessions.”"
Orlando struggled mightily on the glass throughout the road trip and it was seen clearly in the way the team ultimately defended.
The Magic are ranked 23rd in the league in defensive rating, giving up 114.4 points per 100 possessions. They are 14th in the league in defensive rebound rate, grabbing 72.1 percent of available defensive rebounds. The team is also 14th giving up 13.5 second-chance points per game.
When the team won eight of nine games — the best stretch of the season — Orlando gave up 109.5 points per 100 possessions (seventh in that time period) and grabbed 73.5 percent of defensive rebounds (11th in the league). The only problem was the rebounds they did give up, they conceded 14.6 second-chance points per game.
That was obviously a small sample size and the Magic playing at their absolute best.
During the team’s five-game road trip, Orlando gave up 113.7 points per 100 possessions (ninth among all teams in their last five games!). But the team gave up a 68.0-percent defensive rebound rate (25th among teams’ last five games) and 15.0 second-chance points.
This is a big sore thumb on a defense that has started to find its footing more and more and can even help the team overcome many of its shortcomings.
"“It’s just a focus,” Paolo Banchero said after practice Thursday. “You’ve got to be able to find a man, box out and hold a team to one shot. It’s a mentality more than it is anything else. You’ve just got to be ready and focused on finishing plays.”"
Boxing out and finding the rebounding mindset was front of mind for the team in two days of practice. They saw how clearly second-chance points killed their chances of a really big breakthrough.
It was not just merely the offensive rebound the team gave up to Walker Kessler in a one-point game late against the Utah Jazz.
The loss to the Jazz saw the Magic give up the third-worst offensive rebound rate of the season (the Jazz grabbed 38.0 percent of available offensive rebounds). The two losses to close the road trip saw the team give up 22 second-chance points to the Jazz and 17 to the Nuggets, both among the top-10 worst performances of the year in that category.
In games that are that close, those extra possessions matter. And as Orlando plays more and more games that are decided in those final moments, these lost possessions — or excessive lost possessions — will be the difference between winning and losing.
For sure, the Magic felt the fatigue later on in the road trip. It was not just the long road trip that almost certainly got to the team later on in the trip, but the altitude of playing in Salt Lake City and Denver.
That should not serve as an excuse. The Magic are expecting more and more of themselves. But it required an added focus.
That lack of focus and fatigue certainly showed up in the team’s rebounding numbers, serving as a reminder of what the team has to focus itself on.
"“It goes back to the little things, the details, the small things of looking to box and boxing out and everybody coming back and nobody leaking out,” Markelle Fultz said after practice on Wednesday. “It’s something simple but again it’s something that’s a mindset that you have to constantly remind yourself of every time a shot goes up not just to look and go get it, box first and then do those things.”"
As coach Jamahl Mosley put it after practice Wednesday, the team has to reward itself for making a team miss. No team can get out and run unless and until they secure the rebound and push it up the court. It is a simple thing, but it is a big thing.
Carter added that the team can get excited at times and start to leak out before they secure the rebound. It takes a few bad games then to remind everyone just how important it is to do these little things to find the success they want.
Certainly rebounding is harder now than in previous years. It is no longer the provenance of just centers. With so many three-pointers going up, teams need their guards to stay and help with the long rebounds that those long shots lead to.
Games are indeed turning on these kinds of plays. And it will take everyone to right the ship and provide the rebounding and balance the team ultimately needs to get over the hump.
"“A lot of things that happened and the way we lost are small things that we can control,” Jalen Suggs said after practice Thursday. “Things we can eliminate and be better at. Just learning and understanding that we are close. We are not as far as it feels sometimes. We have the opportunity to be in the chase that we want to be in and be in the hunt and compete with any team in the league.”"
Suggs said you could feel the way the focus has changed in practices. As he puts it, the team is ready to win and ready to win together. The Magic certainly have the confidence and belief they can make a push.
But it is still these little plays that matter most. That is the biggest lesson from the team’s successes just as it is from the team’s struggles and losses.
The Magic have to stay disciplined on the glass — 1 through 5 — to reap the benefits of just how good this team can be. Otherwise, it will remain just out of reach.