Our Record: 13-7/11-9 ATS
The Orlando Magic seemed to come crashing down from their nine-game win streak with their loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday. All the underlying issues the team was able to get over and paper over came to the front. It was a bad night -- probably made worse by the difficult back-to-back the team faced.
Orlando spent the last two days of practice purportedly tightening up that defense to get back to the elite level they were playing at. That is the most important thing for this team.
They are facing a Cleveland Cavaliers team that has struggled offensively but can be very dangerous with great scorers in Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland and some excellent shooting from Max Strus.
The Magic have to make this game more about themselves and their ability to defend. Orlando needs to get back to the elite-level defense that carried the team through much of these first 20 games. The Magic have shown the adaptability to play any style. But it is most important to play their style and put themselves in a position to win.
3 Keys To Watch
Deflections and Turnovers
The Orlando Magic's defense is fairly simple to follow. It is all about condensing space around the paint and deterring shots at the rim, spraying out to the 3-point line when there are traps in the lane. The Magic then use their length and speed to disrupt those kick-out passes or any attempts to make interior passes.
Orlando has been very good at that this year.
The Magic force a turnover rate of 16.3 percent, third in the league. Teams struggle to make ground against them. Additionally, the team averages 15.9 deflections per game according to NBA.com's hustle stats.
But this is an area where there has been significant slipping and is a big part of why the team's defense has lost a step. In the last four games, the Magic forced opponents to a 12.8 percent turnover rate and recorded 12.5 deflections per game.
That is a significant drop and fewer opportunities for the team to get out in transition. It also means more shots for their opponents. It is a sign of the team's lagging physicality and intensity. Orlando will need to get its deflections and turnovers up to succeed.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were last year's surprise team in the Eastern Conference with a bunch of young players taking their next steps and the team's defense stepping up in a major way. The Cavaliers disappointingly flamed out of the postseason. This was supposed to be a season for them to step up.
That has not quite happened with Jarrett Allen and Donovan Mitchell both dealing with injuries and the Cavaliers integrating a lot of new pieces into the fold. It has been a slow start for the Cavaliers and some of the issues that cost them in the playoffs are still hurting them.
This is still a sleeping giant.
Cleveland is 23rd in offensive rating after being eighth last year. The Cavaliers have not had the same consistency on that end this year. And their rebounding has been a struggle too -- the team is 22nd in defensive rebound rate this year despite all the team's size.
Cleveland has to find its focus. But this is still a dangerous team with the chance to explode offensively if Orlando are not sharp.
The Free Throw Problem
The Orlando Magic have lamented their defense slipping in recent games and that is something they need to tighten up. As much as the team needs to get stops and prevent three-point shooting, the real key to the game will be the Magic's ability to prevent opponents from going to the foul line.
Orlando for the season is giving up a 29.9 percent free throw rate (essentially three free throws for every 10 field goal attempts). That is 27th in the league and not a good number. The Magic like to play physically so some fouling is expected. But this is a weakness in the team's defense.
That has been much worse in the last four games during this little defensive swoon. Opponents are shooting a 34.9 percent free throw rate -- a little more than one free throw for every three field goal attempts. That is not good, to say the least.
Orlando has to be tighter on this as much as anything else to be successful. What is worse is these struggles have come against teams that are not good at getting to the foul line. The Charlotte Hornets rank 20th, the Washington Wizards rank 24th and the Brooklyn Nets rank 28th in free throw rate.
The Cavaliers clock in at 18th with a 24.1 percent free throw rate. Orlando has to keep Cleveland off the foul line.