The Orlando Magic have made it clear they want to be a defensive team.
It is everything coach Jamahl Mosley has talked about. It is something players have been committed to and talked about throughout the year.
Defense is at the heart of whatever success the Magic have had during their 5-4 start to the season. It is the most optimistic and biggest thing that could help the team breakthrough.
But everything is unproven with this Magic team. It has just been nine games and nobody knows what will be permanent. The Magic are still figuring out their formula to win in a lot of ways. They are still working to be consistent.
That is what made this past week for the Magic so critical. Orlando faced three of the top 10 offenses in the league and got to see just how their defensive commitment measured up. There will be continued tests down the road, but this past week revealed the team’s strengths and weaknesses defensively.
The Orlando Magic are still establishing their defense. It ranks near the top of the league to start the season, but there is still a lot of work to do as this past week proved.
Orlando did not come out with a perfect picture. There is still a lot of work to do.
That is what testing yourself against some of the league’s best will do.
As things stand, the Magic rank second in the league with a 105.8 defensive rating. Orlando’s defense has been able to hold itself steady even without Carter — the team has 108.5 defensive rating in its last four games, sixth in the league during that time.
That notes some considerable slipping. But not significant enough.
Orlando went 2-2 on this recent homestand, which included the game in Mexico City. And that homestand featured some of the best offenses in the league, let alone the team has faced this year.
The Magic had a chance to win all of those games, defeating the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks and leading in the second half against both the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks. The Orlando Magic have had a chance to win every game, with only blowout losses to the LA Clippers and Dallas Mavericks.
Those two losses did raise some concerns of course. Those were, at the time the Magic faced them, the best offenses they have faced so far this season.
The Magic have faced only three teams currently in the top 10 in offensive rating, all coming in the last week (the Clippers were in the top 10 but have dropped in the rankings since acquiring James Harden). They went 1-2 in those games.
And the defense struggled to hold its own although it still seemed to affect the teams they faced.
Dallas is currently second in the league in offensive rating at 121.8 points per 100 possessions.
Orlando was certainly solid against Dallas in the first half of its 117-102 loss last week at the Amway Center. The Mavericks scored 103.9 points per 100 possessions. But the Magic fully admitted that they let go defensively as they struggled to make shots. Dallas ended the game with an offensive rating of 118.2 points per 100 possessions, the worst defensive game of the season.
Similarly, the Hawks are currently ranked sixth in the league averaging 116.2 points per 100 possessions. They scored 115.4 points per 100 possessions against the Magic, including only 97.9 points per 100 possessions in the second half.
There is that trend there. These are two of the Magic’s worst defensive games of the season against two of the top offenses in the league so far. And Orlando was able to put together a solid half against both. The Magic kept both below their averages.
The Magic’s defense was disruptive enough, but not enough to fully stop those teams.
All the pieces came together in the Orlando Magic’s win over the Milwaukee Bucks. That was a 112-97 victory that never got closer than 11 points in the second half. Despite Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 34 points, the Orlando Magic gave up only a 97.0 points per 100 possessions for the game, the best mark since the opening night win over the Houston Rockets (a feat that is looking more impressive as the Rockets come into their own).
It is hard to point to one thing the Magic did or did not do well in these games. This is still about building consistency for the team.
The fact the Magic held all three of these teams below their averages is certainly a sign the Magic’s defense can hold its own.
But there is still work to do. And lot of that likely comes on the other side of the ball.
Coach Jamahl Mosley said before the game against the Los Angeles Lakers that at this point in the season he is less concerned with the team’s overall numbers and more focused on trends and finding the team’s averages. There will still be outliers.
That might be why it is less concerning how the Magic lost to the Mavericks. It is something to learn from but not a cause for alarm — the team mostly recovered in the loss to the Hawks.
Defensively then, Orlando has been fairly consistent with its rebounding — a small outlier against Atlanta — and fairly consistent with turnovers, only going above 20 percent in the loss to the Mavericks.
That might be the biggest factor for the Magic’s defense — their offense.
It should be no secret the Magic are not a team that is going to outscore many teams. They have seen their offense go into a shell late in games and go through long droughts. That is what cost them the game against the Hawks, despite how much they locked that team down in the second half.
This is still the big thing for the team to overcome.
Orlando is ranked 21st in the league in offensive rating at 110.0 points per 100 possessions. The Magic only eclipsed that mark in two of these previous three games. The offensive drain from the loss to the Mavericks (103.0 points per 100 possessions in that game) certainly stands out.
The Magic’s defense continues to establish itself as very disruptive. This week continued to proved that. And even top offenses are finding it hard to break through against this team. Only Orlando’s own frustrations have perhaps held the group back. The team just needs to be more consistent and reach 48 minutes.
The challenges will continue.
The Orlando Magic will face the Brooklyn Nets to open its In-Season Tournament play Tuesday. The Nets rank 13th in offensive rating at 112.4 points per 100 possessions (a number that has only fallen in the last few games with Cam Thomas’ sprained ankle).
The upcoming schedule is not much easier. The Orlando Magic will also face the Indiana Pacers (first in offensive rating at 122.0 points per 100 possessions) on Sunday and the Denver Nuggets (fifth at 117.6) and Boston Celtics (fourth at 119.5).
These will be real challenges for the team and real tests for the team’s defense.
This past week was something of a stress test. It is best to think of the team’s defense bending but not breaking. The Magic’s defense kept them in the games and that is all the team can ask for.
Orlando still has to refine itself. But the team has taken some critical steps to solidify that defense and it has established itself well early on this season.