Orlando Magic get back to defensive pressure identity to break skid

The Orlando Magic took a massive punch from Devin Booker. But their defense stepped up and kept them in the game before delivering a crushing final blow in a dominant fourth quarter.
Jonathan Isaac and the Orlando Magic put on a defensive masterclass, bottling up a strong offensive team in the Phoenix Suns.
Jonathan Isaac and the Orlando Magic put on a defensive masterclass, bottling up a strong offensive team in the Phoenix Suns. / Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

113. 38. Final. 98. 66. Magic Suns Final 01.28.24

Devin Booker is an unstoppable force right now. He is a player who will beat you with contested shots and take any space or gap you can give him to the basket. Even good defense is not going to be enough.

How do you stop that? How do you stop a Suns team with shooters around him in Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal or Grayson Allen and Eric Gordon?

Maybe the operative question is whether offenses can grind enough and have the energy to keep going when the Magic are at their menacing best. Orlando is a team that can literally wear teams down with size and pressure.

That is when they are at their best. For another Sunday night, the Magic looked to be at their suffocating best.

Devin Booker was unstoppable for three quarters, with Jalen Suggs hounding and chasing him. In the fourth quarter, he suddenly went quiet. He finally hit the wall that is and can be this Magic defense.

He hit the wall that is Jonathan Isaac.

The Suns more than just hit the wall. They went careening into it and got smashed to bits. Their potent offense got wholly stymied. Booker, who had 44 points in the game, missed all four of his shots in the fourth quarter and had only two points to close the game.

The Suns as a team could not find anything offensively, scoring just 13 points in the final quarter. They went without a point for nearly 5.5 minutes and without a field goal for more than eight minutes. By then, the Magic had hounded and harassed the Suns into coughing up a three-point lead, turning it into a 113-98 Magic rout.

This was a defensive masterclass for the Magic and everything this team is built on.

"It just speaks to what defense is," Isaac said after Sunday's game. "We went down 10 a few times tonight. For us to be able to grind it out, shots not falling or not necessarily being able to make the right plays or the best plays, but being able to hold teams to not being able to score. To me, that's offense right there. It feels good to get stops."

Orlando gave up a 100.0 defensive rating against a team with Phoenix's firepower and just 59.1 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter of this decisive game.

The Magic found success by getting back to what makes their defense so potent.

They dug down to protect the paint, giving up only 40 points in the paint for the game. They forced turnovers and deflections, getting 23 turnovers for 21 points and 15 fast-break points. They pressured and hounded players on the perimeter, getting several backcourt turnovers and steals on the perimeter. And they attacked the offensive glass with 22 second-chance points on 11 offensive rebounds.

The Suns got their shots in. And Booker was incredible offensively. But they were still taking a lot of shots on the perimeter and over contests. Once the Magic were able to find ways to keep him from getting to the paint and got on the same page, the Magic became a dynamic and dangerous team defensively.

They wore them down. It is just tiring to have to ram into the size the Magic present. Eventually they wore them out.

"I couldn't be more proud, you know we talk about the defensive end of the floor and what we want to do," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Sunday's win. "I mean that was about as elite a fourth quarter that I've seen. Their communication, their switching, their navigating the right situation offensively. I mean you continue to ask for them to grow and learn and read different situations, and that's what they did putting that together."

The Magic are a tough team to handle with their size. Suns coach Frank Vogel said after the game there are not a lot of teams built the way the Magic are with their size and ability to pressure teams.

The Magic know when Isaac is on the floor, especially what a backstop he can be, enabling them to be even more aggressive. And with Isaac's ability to step out onto the perimeter, he could switch and suddenly envelop a player like Booker as he did on that crazy block sequence in the fourth quarter.

He was not the only one of course.

Wagner helped stifle Beal (who was clearly struggling to adjust to the mask he was wearing to protect a broken nose that he eventually dumped), and Banchero had his shots at Durant throughout the game. Black had one fourth-quarter sequence where he blocked a Beal jumper and dug out the loose ball to start a fast break.

This was the kind of effort that defined the Magic's victory. This is the kind of effort that has defined all that is good this season.

"It's growth I would say," Moe Wagner said after Sunday's game. "Those players are going to score regardless. You aren't going to turn them over or have them 0-for nights. I think it's kind of a matter of picking up your head and keep playing even though they score. Booker made some unbelievable shots today. You have to keep competing and keep your head up and play mind free and don't be hurt when he scores on you. Just keep playing. That's part of our maturing process."

It was like Orlando slowly choked out Phoenix's chances. Getting there was a grind, and the Magic faced some missteps. But they stuck to their identity and who they are to get to the finish line and be the team that shuts down this Phoenix juggernaut.

This is how the Magic win games. They have to be stifling and energetic defensively, using that to feed their offense. This was a loud reminder of that.

Considering everything the team has gone through in the last month, it was good to see the team be able to reach back and find this level of defense. Especially considering how much the Magic struggled early, giving up 37 points in the first quarter and struggling to contain Booker until the fourth quarter.

The Magic showed they are not going to splinter, and they can still commit to their defensive identity. That is what they will need to do to right the ship.

"That's the identity of this team," Isaac said after Sunday's game. "When we really lock into it, there is no team that we can't stop. To do it tonight against them, hold them to really 11 points in the fourth quarter. I don't think anybody has probably done that all year to them. For us to get it done like that, especially with the way Booker was rolling, to kind of shut them up in the fourth quarter, it's amazing."

Orlando had a similar game to this when the team shut down the Miami Heat last Sunday at Kia Center. The Magic followed that with one of their worst defensive games of the season against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Momentum is the next day's pitcher, and the Magic are trying to build some momentum to get back into the playoff picture. They know these are the kinds of efforts they need to have to get there.

Next. Magic stick Together 01.28.24. Orlando Magic have to stick together to end slide. dark

They will not get much time to enjoy it with another challenge in Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks on the road on Monday. But this is who the Magic are. And if they can find this once, they can find it again.