On the latest episode of Orlando Magic All-Access, the cameras caught Jamahl Mosley talking to his team before the team’s preseason opener against the New Orleans Pelicans.
He used that time to remind the team of the team’s internal expectations. The basis for everything that this team would be about.
Everyone had talked publicly about their ambitions of being a top-10 defense in the league. Mosley went further, telling them their goal was to be a top-5 defense in the league. He said he saw at least three players who could be on the All-Defensive team and he believed everyone could be a strong defender.
That kind of confidence would be enough to make even fans ready to run through a wall with the potential this team has. The Magic were not going to just talk about having a good defense, it was going to be something that was a part of their DNA.
The Orlando Magic are aiming to be one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Through two games, they have shown the kind of commitment and disruption that makes that goal achievable.
This would be the backbone of their team. It was the thing that the group felt like it could build off most after their strong 29-28 finish to the season, where they were sixth in the league in defensive rating for nearly three-quarters of the season.
And it would take everyone to do it.
Defense has become the team’s superpower and truly its identity in this early season. They are making good on all the expectations and belief the team had in itself.
"“It’s a very powerful feeling to understand that if you turn it up a notch, people really struggle to score against you,” Moe Wagner said after Friday’s game. “I think we’re starting to understand that. That’s a lot of fun as a unit because you kind of embrace that too. This was game two. Teams are going to figure stuff out and get better. So you have to keep improving and get better.”"
It is still too early to draw conclusions — and the Magic have not played elite offensive competition yet (a back-to-back in Los Angeles on Monday and Tuesday looms as a major test). But the numbers are encouraging.
Through two games, the Magic’s defense has been downright suffocating, giving up 183 total points. The Houston Rockets (116-86 losers at the Amway Center) and Portland Trail Blazers (102-97 losers Friday) are shooting a combined 40.1 percent from the floor and 31.8 percent from deep (on only 33.0 attempts per game).
Overall, the Magic have a 95.8 defensive rating, the second-best mark on the early season. Opponents are scoring only 35.0 points per game in the paint against the Magic, the second-best mark in the early season (the Blazers recorded only 38 in Friday’s game).
What has been more impressive is how everyone seems to be contributing something on defense. Everyone seems to have a big defensive play.
Jalen Suggs has been a star on that end to this point, recording four steals in Friday’s win in Portland. He is disruptive and plays like a free safety, hunting steals, errant passes and players unaware that he will dig in and pick the ball off when they expose their dribble.
Suggs is averaging a team-best 3.5 deflections per game according to NBA.com’s hustle stats. The Magic as a team are sixth in the league in deflections with 18.0 per game (they were at 15th in the league at 13.8 per game last year).
Wendell Carter has been a monster at the rim in the early season. He is giving up just 25.0 percent shooting at the rim (3 for 12) according to data from Second Spectrum, the third-best mark in the league so far among centers who average at least 20.0 minutes per game.
Moe Wagner is still taking charges and even recorded his first block in the win over the Blazers. Paolo Banchero is even contributing more defensively. He has 3.0 deflections per game on the early season and has been noticeably more engaged and attentive on that end. Franz Wagner has been solid in his spots. Cole Anthony has hounded opponents as they bring the ball up. As has Markelle Fultz.
And despite a relatively quiet game against the Blazers on Friday, Jonathan Isaac’s defensive ability goes without saying.
Defense has been something everyone is contributing to and making their own.
"“I really think it was our guys took ownership of it,” Mosley said after Friday’s game. “We talk about being a defensive first team. It wasn’t the offense. It was our ability to sit down and get stops. I just really believe the guys decided to sit down and guard and make it a defensive game. That’s what you have to do on the road to get a win.”"
That defense became the highlight in an ugly game for the Magic on Friday in Portland.
Orlando scored only 39 points in the second half and struggled to find their footing offensively. Portland, not exactly an offensive juggernaut, continuously put pressure on Orlando and erased double-digit deficits on at least three occasions.
The Magic’s offense strained to keep up or put the game completely away. It came down to the defense to get the job done.
Specifically with the Magic up by five with a minute to play, Jalen Suggs came up with a huge block in transition with Shaedon Sharpe coming downhill on him and then pulled the chair on Jerami Grant on the ensuing inbound, forcing a jump ball that the Magic won to seal the game.
Suggs, who had a solid offensive game Friday with 11 points and five rebounds, was strutting around after stops in the fourth quarter like he had just made a huge dunk. That is part of the culture and defense the team is trying to build.
There is a lot of pride in what they are putting together.
"“I think guys come into the game wanting to change the game on that end,” Franz Wagner said after Friday’s game. “That definitely translates. We talk about how you can’t control how good you play on offense. But defense always travels. . . . We don’t just want to be the team that plays hard and tries hard. We want to win these games. It’s just the first two games, but we want to keep getting better and have a good road trip.”"
Blazers coach Chauncey Billups was complimentary of the team’s defense and players responded warmly to the notion. But the Magic also made it clear they are not just here to get warm compliments. They want to see the results.
There is that determination no longer to be the team that simply plays hard because they are young. They want to win. And everyone seems to know that pathway comes on defense. Through two games the team has been committed to that.
They are trying to show their maturity with their poise and communication. This is definitely at the heart of who they are and what they want to do.
Despite the two wins, Orlando has certainly been stressed defensively already. They have had to come up with big plays and stop runs. In both games against Houston and Portland, the defense has had to step up in a major way and in big moments. The team has prepared for those with their practices and executed.
There is still a lot to clean up for sure — the Magic gave up 15 offensive rebounds against the Blazers. But defense is the heart of who this Magic team is and they are all bought in to what they have to do so far.
So far, they are making good on Molsey’s expectations for his team.