Orlando Magic have to be about their defense at all times

The Orlando Magic's defense struggled again as they lost their identity playing without two key starters. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic's defense struggled again as they lost their identity playing without two key starters. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

134. 89. 123. 38. Final

You would have been excused if you felt a pang of relief when word came down Tuesday afternoon that Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday would miss the Milwaukee Bucks’ game against the Orlando Magic.

This seemed like a lifeline in a long NBA season. The Bucks’ two most important players and key attackers would sit out and give the Magic a chance to steal a win against the league’s best team to help make up ground in their postseason chase.

All Orlando would have to do is take care of its business.

As is so often the case, that is not how things work in the NBA. Veteran and championship teams know how to adjust. They know their identity and they know how to play regardless of who is in and out of the lineup.

Down key players — the Magic themselves were down Wendell Carter and Gary Harris for a second straight game — teams have to reinforce their identity. This is when you find out what you are about.

The Bucks? They are about their defense. Their philosophy is all about locking up the paint and bottling teams up. They like to get the ball in the paint and spread the floor with shooters, forcing closeouts to create more drive-and-kick opportunities.

That does not change with Antetokounmpo and Holiday out. And they know how to keep operating.

It may not have been perfect with the Magic still able to score. But it certainly was not enough for Orlando in a 134-123 loss to Milwaukee at Amway Center on Tuesday. Shorthanded, the Bucks were still about the things that build that team up and have helped them to the best record in the league.


The Orlando Magic lost their identity down key players once again as the Milwaukee Bucks rolled to an easy victory against a defenseless Magic team.

The Magic showed the house of cards can topple easily with such a young team. They were unable to stick to their defensive principles and found themselves climbing uphill far too much, falling into the trap of trying to get it all back themselves.

It is not surprising that a young team would struggle with consistency. Part of what the Magic need to get out of this final push of the season is an understanding of the consistency they will need. That certainly should include learning how to play shorthanded. One player should not completely flip the team on its head.

But that is what has happened without Carter in the lineup especially.

"“I didn’t see much of that [defense],” Cole Anthony said after Tuesday’s game. “I think they scored at least 32 points every quarter. We had no answer. We couldn’t stop them.“It’s always difficult losing two starters. Those are two dudes who help our defense greatly. I’m not saying we still can’t be a great defensive team. But it’s an adjustment period when you lose two dudes who are really good defenders, start, play really heavy minutes and help our team on the defensive end.”"

The Orlando Magic gave up 122 points, a 119.6 defensive rating, 46 points in the paint and 32 free throw attempts (20 from Damian Lillard) in the loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday without him.

In Tuesday’s loss, Milwaukee scored 134 points, posted a 125.2 offensive rating, scored 56 points in the paint and tallied 34 free throw attempts. Even with several factors in their favor — the Magic scored plenty of points themselves including 62 points in the paint, 16 second-chance points (to just three for the Bucks) and 19 fast-break points — the Magic were not holding to their identity.

The fouling was a big issue and part of the impatience the Magic showed. But it was a breakdown at almost every level. The Magic were unable to build any momentum to come back from an early deficit.

Orlando wants to be a defensive team. The Magic’s strong run since early December has been boosted by one of the best defenses in the league — ninth in the league in defensive rating at 113.3 points allowed per 100 possessions since Dec. 7.

That is not the team they have been lately. Without their whole roster available, the Magic have slipped significantly on defense.

This young team has to learn to do what the Bucks did, adjust to preserve their identity and keep everyone in their roles.

It helped Milwaukee still had Brook Lopez, who has proven himself to be a wall on the interior. But the Bucks switched up their offense, forcing their way to the inside through Lopez to set up the rest of their offensive attack.

Even without Antetokounmpo’s constant attack, the Bucks still made 59 percent of their shots and 10 of 28 shots from beyond the arc. Jevon Carter added to Brook Lopez’s 26 points with 24 of his own. They put constant pressure on the Magic’s defense.

They targeted Moe Wagner in pick and rolls it seemed. Orlando had to adjust and put him in a drop but no one stepped up to increase the pressure. The Bucks walked into jumpers and easily got shots or to the foul line. The Magic were never able to establish themselves physically and everything came too easy for Milwaukee throughout the game.

The defense had to change some with Wendell Carter out of the game. But coach Jamahl Mosley said that cannot be an excuse and the team has to tighten up its defense and be quicker to help and get players back in position.

This is something that perhaps more veteran teams like the Bucks understood that the younger Magic do not quite have down. It should be abundantly clear how central defense is to the Magic’s ultimate success.

When Orlando was able to get back into the game, it was usually because the defense stepped up to get stops and turnovers. The Magic were able to move the ball freer in transition and that helped the team keep up the pressure and stay at least within striking distance.

"“When we did get stops, we were able to get out and run,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Tuesday’s game. “I think that was going to be our calling card tonight being able to play when their defense was set. We’ve got to be able to make shots as well. That’s where it becomes tough.”"

There are going to be good nights and bad nights during the course of the season. But Orlando still needs to learn how to make its bad nights better. It still needs to learn how to make its identity fully what it is about and something that stays constant regardless of who is in or out.

The Magic are still establishing their identity. That is part of what young teams have to do.

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That does not make the effort the Magic had Tuesday night any less disappointing or excusable. This was an opportunity the team let slip away. The Magic can and need to be better. They need to make their defense far more consistent and important to their identity.