Orlando Magic Playbook: Magic’s paint defense is its strength and weakness

The Orlando Magic's interior defensive scheme has been the foundation for their defensive revival. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic's interior defensive scheme has been the foundation for their defensive revival. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

Teams are still figuring out how to attack the Orlando Magic. That much is clear as they probe and examine their defense.

Figuring out how to make their way through the mass of arms the Magic present is a challenge. More importantly, the Magic have figured out a way to use their individual defensive skill and their group’s length to repel attempts at the paint.

Take a typical play from the Orlando Magic’s 108-106 win over the Detroit Pistons on Thursday. A game where Orlando completely shut out the paint in the half-court to power their defense in a game where the offense simply did not have it.

Despite the late-game struggles to get stops and maintain a five-point lead, the Magic’s defense was the calling card in that game. And it was because of the team’s interior defense and length to close out that Orlando was able to get off and running.

Every play for the Magic’s defense starts with this kind of work to close the paint and then scramble out to the perimeter. It starts with shutting off a driver like Jaden Ivey and then using their length to eat up teams as they kick out.

You can see pretty clearly even on this steal from Jonathan Isaac where things can go right for this team and how quickly things can go wrong. There is a mad dash after the team collapses in the paint. Bojan Bogdanovic is wide open as an outlet for the driver, leading to a rush to catch up to the ball rotation.

It is only Jonathan Isaac’s extreme length and Isaiah Stewart’s poor ball handling that breaks things. That is part of the strategy to close out and scramble until a team makes a mistake. There is a lot of that going on in this game as the Magic cut off the paint.

The Orlando Magic’s defense has been the bedrock of the turnaround this season. And it starts with how the team dominates on the interior.

The Magic’s paint defense is the team’s foundation and why the team has experienced some limited success defensively. It is the bedrock of everything the Magic do and a big key in the win Thursday.

"“It’s who we have to continue to be,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Thursday’s win. “That was the gameplan going in: take away the paint. Obviously they hit some big shots. Our guys did a great job sticking tot he gameplan, taking way the paint and finishing possessions.”"

The Magic checked a lot of boxes that are key to the team’s defensive identity. They gave up just 26 points in the paint (on 13-for-31 shooting). They conceded only six offensive rebounds for eight second-chance points — a major point of emphasis after struggling in the first two meetings.

Orlando had a defensive rating of 102.9 points per 100 possessions. This is stellar defense for the team and part of the team’s growing trend on that end.

It is something the team has built up bit by bit. Starting from the ground up. And it is certainly still a process to build things up.

"“I think that’s growth for us,” Wendell Carter said after Thursday’s game. “We tend to fall into when the ball isn’t going in, we allow it to affect our defense. Not sprint back on defense when we miss a shot we thought we were supposed to, giving up offensive rebounds, not impacting all shots. I think we did a good job locking into what the game plan was.”"

The Magic currently rank 17th in the league with a 113.7 defensive rating . They are eighth in the league since Dec. 7 with a 112.6 defensive rating. That is a span of 35 games (and the Magic have gone 20-15 in that time since bottoming out at 5-20).

Their paint defense has been a big key to this. They give up 48.0 points in the paint per game, the fifth-fewest in the league. Since Dec. 7, the Magic are giving up 46.2 points in the paint per game. That is the fifth-fewest in the league in that stretch too.

This has been a team that prides itself on locking up the paint and opponents find it tough to score on them in the interior.

That is a credit to the rotations this team has come up with. And the power of this team that it can lean on its defense is evident.

In this fourth-quarter possession, Jaden Ivey is able to get past Franz Wagner on the pick and roll but as Ivey gets into the paint, the Magic’s defense collapses and crowds him.

This is not a particularly active example of the Magic’s interior defense, but it illustrates a lot of the things the Magic do.

Paolo Banchero has a foot in the paint to deter a drive. Markelle Fultz is in from the other corner to deter a drive too. And Wendell Carter is able to stay in a good drop position for Franz Wagner to recover. What makes it ultimately work is that Carter is able to crash, recover and block Jalen Duren’s shot at the rim.

The Magic are a collapsing paint team. And the idea is to put enough pressure with bodies and length to force difficult passes to the perimeter that enable the team to recover in time with more precise scrambles and rotations.

This is a great example of the Magic’s collapsing defense wants to give up and the kind of tough choices they put players in as well as their effort and intensity:

This play gives you a good sense of how the Magic set up their pick and roll coverage. Bojan Bogdanovic and Jalen Duren are running a pick and roll. Franz Wagner is fighting over it while Carter sits in a drop coverage.

Markelle Fultz is helping at the nail to cover Jalen Duren’s dive to the basket. That leaves Gary Harris with three responsibilities in help side. His responsibility as the low man is to be the last line of defense in the paint but then also to be the first man to scramble back to Killian Hayes on the wing (the first pass) if Markelle Fultz is engaged with Jalen Duren and to cover the corner.

His man is Ivey in the corner. Ivey is a 34.3 percent 3-point shooter this season (including his 5-for-7 performance Thursday). So Harris can creep a bit deeper into the paint even with Ivey sooting well in this game.

The Magic are fine with a skip pass like this. The ball will be up in the air long enough for the Magic to scramble back into position and they should be long enough with their wingspans to catch up and contest while traveling less distance. If Harris closes out too hard, there should be enough time to reshape the defense and close down the paint once again.

Defense is built in these scrambles and how well everyone attacks when they need to recover.

Orlando has four players essentially involved defending this action with all four having an eye on the paint. This skip pass to the corner is the one the team wants to bait, especially with what the team considers a poor shooter out there.

The power that comes from this strategy is that any driver or player in the paint is going to have to deal with a lot of bodies from both sides of the paint. The extreme collapsing though forces the team to scramble to the 3-point line. And this is one of the team’s weaknesses.

Every defense is about being willing to give something up and making a deal of what they will live with. For now, the Magic seem content to give up 3-point shots.

Orlando is sixth in the league giving up 34.8-percent shooting from deep. But the team gives up the third-most 3-point attempts per game at 37.1 attempts per game and the seventh-most 3-pointers per gmae at 12.9 per game.

This all says, the Magic’s focus on the paint and their length and scrambling does enable them to defend the 3-point line well. But they give up so many attempts that there is some 3-point luck involved and teams are still able to get up a decent volume.

Add in the Magic’s low volume of 3-point shooting and that can be a dangerous combination.

Three-point shooting was the main reason the Pistons were able to stay in the game despite the Magic’s strong interior defense. Detroit made 17 of 34 from deep. It is how the Pistons broke down the interior defense is how any team can attack the Magic’s defense.

In this play, Jonathan Isaac is able to force Bojan Bogdanovic toward the baseline and into the teeth of the help defense. Like in the previous clip, Gary Harris seps up in a quasi drop to stop the dribble penetration. Markelle Fultz is the low man defending the rim.

That leaves Paolo Banchero guarding the weakside.

Hamidou Diallo makes a cut toward the basket and catches Paolo Banchero a bit out of position. This enables Diallo to set a flare screen and prevent him from getting back out to challenge Alec Burks in the corner.

Bogdanovic here makes nearly an identical pass to the weakside corner as he did in the previous clip. Except this time the Magic are smaller so they cannot quite block his view of the weakside. And in this case, the Magic allow him to get into the middle of the court, giving him a better angle to fire that pass cross-court.

The Magic’s defense then relies on being able to scramble out ot the 3-poin line when defenses eventually kick out. And sometimes that is what burns them. They are not able to get there. In this case, it is a good play design (a quasi-hammer screen) to set up a good shooter in the corner.

Still, this defensive identity is working for the team. The Magic, at least in the context of the regular season, are making this bet that protecting the paint will give the team its best chance to get stops and feed the offense.

There are still clearly weaknesses the team needs to account for. And improving the team’s offense will make the defense better.

Next. Orlnado Magic bench's scrappy defense gets the job done. dark

This is a solid foundation for the team and it is easy to see how the team has the pieces to make this work.