Orlando Magic’s defense isn’t leading team’s energy

Moe Wagner helped lead the Orlando Magic back in the game. But it took a long time for the team find their energy. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Moe Wagner helped lead the Orlando Magic back in the game. But it took a long time for the team find their energy. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic found themselves down by 25 points in the third quarter. An awful game was getting even worse as the Chicago Bulls paraded to the basket and scored 3-pointers without much resistance.

The Magic have had some bad defensive games this season and even recently, but this one was looking like one of the worst for the Magic. And worse, the final margin was reflecting the lack of effort. There was no hiding it this time. There is no sugarcoating it.

Then suddenly, the energy changed. It took one or two plays building on each other before it became an avalanche before it started spreading from player to player and enough to put the Chicago Bulls on their heels.

It crescendoed in one moment of pure energy. The biggest bell play on an evening that was mostly devoid of any whiff of them.

Moe Wagner dove on the floor after double-teaming DeMar DeRozan to go for a loose ball, and looped the ball over his head toward the middle of the court where Cole Anthony dug the ball out and ran up the court for a windmill alley-oop. The Magic had cut the 25-point deficit down to 10.

Suddenly it felt like the Magic could believe. It felt like they could make it all the way back. And the Magic did get pretty close, cutting the deficit to as close as five points with a little less than 4.5 minutes to play.

Orlando started to run out of gas at that point. Chicago reloaded its starters and finished the game with a 17-3 run for a 128-109 victory at the Amway Center. The Magic found their energy too little, too late to complete the comeback.

The Orlando Magic want to be a defensive team. But consistently their defense is not leading their energy and that has led to some disastrous results for the team.

Coach Jamahl Mosley opted to stick with the bench group that got the team back into the game rather than reloading with any of his starters, who struggled all game long, and the bench group just did not have enough energy to finish the job. They were the ones with momentum and providing energy.

The question is why? Why did the Magic need to make this desperate move and hunt for a playing group that could get them back into the mix?

The question is why the Magic could not find their energy sooner or with their defense before this moment?

"“I think in general it’s less an Xs and Os thing, it’s an energy thing,” Wagner said after Saturday’s loss. “I think we showed we are capable. I think we know we are capable. This is not an excuse, but we were just flat. Part of that was putting our head down too quickly and letting go of our focus and giving in. I think we have to get better at that as a unit.”"

The old saying in the NBA is that defense travels. With the inconsistencies that come with road games, it is a team’s defense that is meant to be a constant.

The Magic want that to be true about them. It certainly became true as the Magic finally found some energy and swagger in the third quarter of Saturday’s game.

But Orlando has struggled to find defensive consistency.

And nowhere is that seen more in the areas where teams have to rely on their defense the most — on the road and on the second night of back-to-backs.

The Magic are 1-9 on the second night of back-to-backs this season. Their only win came against the Portland Trail Blazers after a blowout loss to the Sacramento Kings. This is a real struggle for the team.

"“I really think sometimes it falls down to taking the easy route in some ways,” Jamahl Mosley said after Saturday’s loss. “When it’s hard, you want to kind of catch and shoot and not share the basketball. Guys were trying. They were moving the ball early on and we just were not making shots. sometimes when the shots don’t fall, it takes its toll on the defense. We have to be a defensive team first. If shots are falling or not, we have to be able to defend at a high clip no matter what.”"

This has been a repeated message and a repeated occurrence for this team. Especially in these no-rest situations.

Fatigue should not be an excuse. Every team has to go through back-to-backs. But the concerning part is just how poorly the Magic play in these back-to-backs and how similar the Magic’s outcomes and problems are in these games.

What is most noticeable about this stat is what happens to their defense.

The Magic rank 24th overall with a 114.9 defensive rating. That is hardly the number the Magic want to be at, to begin with.

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But it gets worse. On the second night of back-to-backs, the Magic’s defensive rating drops to an abysmal 122.9 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Orlando gave up the 128 points to go with 59.3 percent shooting and 16 3-pointers on 45.7 percent shooting from deep in Saturday’s loss to Chicago. The Magic’s final defensive rating came out to 132.0 points per 100 possessions, the fourth-worst defensive rating of the season and the fifth time giving up a defensive rating of more than 130.0 points per 100 possessions this season (the team had only four such games all of last season).

This is not the picture of a team that is based on defense. And games like Saturday where there is so much stacked against them — like the rest disadvantage — show how important defense should be to their success.

The Magic’s biggest issue, as it typically is with young teams, is that they do not get their energy from their defense. Their energy is dependent on their offense and whether they are making shots.

"“That’s what started it obviously, us trying to go shot for shot,” Mosley said after Saturday’s loss. “I think that’s what started the momentum. us thinking we were going to try to outscore [them]. And back-to-backs are difficult. It forces you to give in sometimes. That’s what we started doing, giving into the easy shot exchange. If we are going to become the team we want to become, we’re going to have to hang our hat on the defensive side of the floor whether shots are going in or not.”"

This was echoed after the game too from Cole Anthony and Moe Wagner.

Anthony said the team just struggles to find energy on these back-to-backs. Wagner agreed with Mosley’s assessment that often their energy and spirits drop when they struggle giving a team already at an energy deficit a bigger hill to climb.

This is an area where the team has to continue to grow.

Orlando missed plenty of shots in the first half of this game — shooting 41.3 percent in the first half and just 32.0 percent in the first quarter. That put Orlando in a hole. Some early misses at the rim seemingly knocked the team completely out of rhythm.

It is indeed an issue the Magic need seemingly perfect conditions to defend at a high enough level. This is still an imperfect team and one still learning to bring the right focus and intensity to each game.

And in the end, if the Magic are going to make defense their identity that needs to be their constant. To succeed on the road — Orlando is heading out on a four-game road trip where the team is 6-18 with the fewest wins in the Eastern Conference — they will need to lead with their defense.

The Magic could not reach into their reserves and find it Saturday night. They could clearly see that. Just as they could clearly see in the second half how they could rescue themselves.

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To find the energy to win, it has to start with their defense and not their offense. Orlando is going to need plenty of energy to succeed and grow this season.