When Orlando Magic hang their hat on defense, it all clicks

Cole Anthony and the Orlando Magic are playing stronger defense more consistently and reaping the results. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Cole Anthony and the Orlando Magic are playing stronger defense more consistently and reaping the results. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

38. Final. 104. 73. 115

The Orlando Magic were down 12-0 and unable to hit a shot to save their lives to start the game. They looked like they were about to get steamrolled by the best team in the Western Conference with the potential MVP leading the way.

That is what a young team is supposed to do against a team of this caliber. They go down against these teams and they stay down. And knowing the Magic’s offensive struggles, that would have been a safe bet.

Orlando has struggled to shoot plenty this year. They would go on to make only 9 of 27 3-pointers. That is not what they would have to rely on. It was never what this team would have to rely on.

That was among the messages before the game. Even when this team is struggling to shoot and struggling to find shots, there is one thing that can be the lifeline to give them a chance.

And sometimes to blow the game open.

The Magic’s defense is starting to find its footing. It is starting to be a force the team can rely on more and more and the thing that guides the team and sparks its offense.

The Orlando Magic are starting to find more solid footing defensively and that has helped spark the team into a surprising push for the postseason.

The Magic were down 12-0 and the tide turned quickly in the Magic’s favor because of their defense once they got the lid off the basket and started to calm down, avoiding fouls and other miscues defensively to start the game.

It started simply enough with the Magic forcing a turnover, getting out in transition and ending with Markelle Fultz throwing a lob to Wendell Carter. Orlando ended up forcing seven turnovers for 11 points in the first quarter. That set the tone for a game where the Magic created 22 points off 16 turnovers and just plain outworked the Nuggets for much of it, even by the Nuggets’ admission.

Denver shot only 46.4 percent from the floor and just 10 for 33 from beyond the arc. The Magic were a scrambling and amorphous blob defensively, suffocating drives to the paint and challenging shots on the perimeter with hustle and energy.

Orlando held one of the top offenses in the league to just 104 points, following up a strong defensive performance Tuesday with another. The Magic went on to win 115-104, opening up as much as a 19-point lead and holding off the Nuggets’ last attempts at a run.

For good measure, the Magic gave up just 20 points in the fourth quarter to put the hammer down, making up for some of their lagging offense.

If there is a lesson from all this, it is certainly that defense, activity and energy need to be this team’s calling card. It is their best way to make up for any of their other shortcomings.

"“I think just buying into what the coaches are telling us and buying into the mentality they try to put upon us every possession locking,” Paolo Banchero said after Thursday’s win. “I just think we have a lot of good defenders. We match up with a lot of teams on that side of the floor to where there’s not really a mismatch or a weak link. We can defend all five guys at a high level. I think we’ve been doing a good job.”"

The Magic gave up just 104.0 points per 100 possessions to the Nuggets. Denver is one of the top offenses in the league, typically scoring 117.5 points per 100 possessions. It was their sixth-worst offensive game of the season.

For Orlando, it continued a pretty strong run of defensive efforts. The Magic played their seventh-best defensive game of the season.

Since Jonathan Isaac’s return on Jan. 23 (as good a marker as any), Orlando is giving up just 112.0 points per 100 possessions, eighth in that time period across the league.

These are still small sample sizes. But in the Magic’s wins, even in games where their overall defensive numbers are not great, it is easy to see how the team’s activity and energy picks up when their defense leads.

This has been a continued lesson for this group and one that finally seems to be sinking in.

"“As a unit, we’re just really locking in on that defensive end,” Cole Anthony said after Thursday’s game. “We’ve made it a point for us to guard the best we can and let our defense spark our offense. We get stops, it gives us momentum as a team and allows us to get out and run. That’s what we really want to do. We’re doing a really good job as a unit.”"

That defense can of course feed the team’s offense. The Magic recorded 18 fast-break points in this game. Their deflections and peskiness took the Nuggets aback. As Mike Malone put it after the game, maybe the 12-0 deficit lulled Denver into a false sense of security.

Or maybe it heightened the energy the Magic needed to play with to win this game.

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The team has put a focus on picking up full court more and making sure opposing teams feel them physically. That can overflow into fouling, a consistent problem for the Magic as they find that balance. But when it all clicks, it helps the team flow naturally into the offense.

That is an easy way to spark the fast break and score easy points. It was a sign of the team’s confidence and control over the game.

There is quite simply buy-in throughout the roster into what the team is doing defensively and they are executing and communicating it better. The results show that.

"“They are buying into trusting one another, understanding they need to cover for one another, the weakside being early, getting into the basketball,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Thursday’s game. “We talked about that in the locker room and showed some clips about picking up full court and how that changes the game. You set the tone right from the start of the game that teams know when they walk into the building, they have to feel us from the start.”"

The Magic are indeed starting to build a consistent defensive identity now. They are starting to find their groove and that balance physically.

They have great defenders like Jonathan Isaac and Jalen Suggs, who noticeably use their defensive acumen to spark energy plays and lock up their man. Banchero said after the game Suggs has been much smarter with how he uses his physicality and that has helped spark the team.

The rest of the team could say the same thing. Everyone has been more locked in and precise defensively. It is something the team is taking pride in and knows it can spark the team.

This is where the team has to find its energy. So much of what the Magic do starts with its defense. It has to.

"“You can feel it all the time when the team is coming down missing four or five shots in a row and we’re getting rebounds, you can feel the energy build and build,” Banchero said after Thursday’s win. “That’s what we try to do . We always say get two stops in a row, get three stops in a row. That’s what we’re always telling each other. And we try to go out and do it.”"

Defense is one of the harder things to teach a young team to do. The Magic have built themselves to be solid defensively, but there are still growing pains. The numbers show that as they have followed some strong defensive performances with really bad ones. Orlando still has a lot of work to do.

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But the team is trending in the right direction. The numbers show that too. Orlando is finding its most success when its defense leads the way.

The results when it does can be pretty astounding.