Defense — yes, defense — helping Magic find their way
ORLANDO, Fla. — The days of the Orlando Magic trying to beat teams by simply outscoring them are over.
Yes, their 95-84 victory Friday night over the New Orleans Pelicans was due in good measure to the 22 points they got from Victor Oladipo and the 18 they got from Nikola Vucevic. But the tone was set less than five minutes into the game when Elfrid Payton, who is looking less and less like a rookie who will only turn 21 on Sunday, forced Tyreke Evans into a rarely-seen eight-second violation.
That sort of defensive intensity carried over as the game went on to things that don’t necessarily show up in the box score. And in the case of forward Andrew Nicholson, whom coach James Borrego kept in for the entire fourth quarter, a player who hadn’t shown up in a box score at all since Jan. 10 figured prominently in the outcome.
When the Magic opened the season in New Orleans, the Pelicans had 64 points in the paint and 32 points off second chances. This time, those numbers were 36 and 6.
"I don’t know if you guys can tell," said guard Willie Green, who lent a hand in the Magic’s 16-2 fourth-quarter run which put them ahead for good. "But as a player, I can tell you we look like a different team."
Except for Borrego now being in charge instead of Jacque Vaughn, this is the same team that gave up more than 100 points in 14 consecutive games. A case could have been made going into the NBA All-Star break that the Magic’s defensive turnaround was helped by facing the downtrodden Los Angeles Lakers and the decrepit New York Knicks. But the Pelicans are fighting to remain in the extremely competitive Western Conference playoff picture and had Anthony Davis back in their lineup.
For the Magic to hold any team to 37 points in the second half and 84 overall, much less one with a winning record, would have been inconceivable three weeks ago.
"It’s not a one-man show. It’s not a one-man defense. It’s a five-man unit pulling together, covering for each other," Borrego said.
"We kind of got away from it a little bit in the second quarter," Payton said, alluding to the 27 points the Pelicans put up in that period. "But in the second half, we got back to what we do. Guys were helping each other, and we did a good job on the boards."
When Channing Frye picked up two fouls in the game’s first four minutes trying to defend Davis, Borrego didn’t hesitate to bring in 7-footer Dewayne Dedmon. While he didn’t duplicate the shot-blocking effort he turned in against the Knicks, Dedmon was able to not only neutralize Davis but stay out of foul trouble.
"Usually he gets a lot of touches around the rim, easy dunks, lobs, stuff like that," he said. "That was a big focus of mine. (Borrego) was preaching just trying to get him off the rim, no lobs for him. Giving him perimeter jump shots, we’ll take that."
"That guy plays with so much energy," Green said of Dedmon. "He plays a little crazy, but that’s what we love about him. His energy, his effort is second to none. We know he’s going to come in every game and give you that. You can count on him."
The biggest example of that energy came when Dedmon slammed home a missed free-throw attempt by Nicholson late in the third quarter to put the Magic up 73-69.
It was Nicholson, as much as Dedmon or Vucevic, who held Davis scoreless in the fourth quarter. The Pelicans managed only 13 points in the final 12 minutes.
"We challenged that group in the fourth quarter to have our best defensive quarter of the game," Borrego said. "And they responded."
Nicholson, whose name had been mentioned going into Thursday’s trading deadline, matched his season high in minutes played with 21.
"Andrew has stayed ready," Borrego said. "He has stayed committed to this group. He has done his work. Like we’ve told our guys from the start, all 15 (players) are alive. Any man, their number could be called any night, any minute. And Drew responded tonight. He’ll be ready the next time. Kyle O’Quinn will be ready. Dewayne Dedmon will be ready. When you number’s called, you step up."
With everybody stepping up, things are looking up.
"I feel like we have more trust toward each other," Dedmon said. "We’re playing for each other. It’s a good vibe right now."