Back to basics for Orlando Magic as defense is in resurgence

The Orlando Magic have gotten back to basics and have found their defense once again for this latest string of games. It provides some hope for the team.

TorontoRaptors

94

OrlandoMagic

102

When the Orlando Magic came to the locker room at halftime of Friday’s 102-94 win over the Toronto Raptors, coach Frank Vogel was not happy.

The Magic had just given up a 30-point quarter and lost control of the game at home. There was plenty to clean up — plenty. As there usually has been this season on defense.

This time Orlando would have to make a stand. And in that halftime conversation, Vogel made his.

The clips he showed displayed a team giving up a lot in the paint — the Raptors scored 36 points in the paint with Jonas Valanciunas scoring 13 points total. Orlando had to double him at times, freeing up shooters as Norman Powell and Terrence Ross combined for five 3-pointers.

The Magic were getting beat thoroughly on offense, particularly in that second quarter. It felt like more of the same.

Something changed, though. Finally, the Magic took a stand defensively. They corrected their mistakes and locked down defensively.

Orlando, at long last, found some defensive spine and defensive momentum, building off an at least OK game against the Indiana Pacers. The Magic won the game thanks to defense.

The Raptors shot 25.6 percent in the second half. One of the top offenses in the league shot 39.1 percent for the game and posted a 97.7 offensive rating for the game. The Magic defense was back to that elite level for the first time in several months.

“We haven’t held a team under 40-percent shooting in I can’t remember how long,” Vogel said. “My vision was that we’d do this on a regular basis and that’s still the plan. We haven’t performed at that level yet, but we continue to harp on it, we continue to teach it. We continue to go through the defensive drill work that we did in practice and the film sessions yesterday in practice to try to get it right.”

For Vogel’s reference, the last time the Magic gave up worse than 40 percent shooting to an opponent was that Dec. 23 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, when the Magic blocked nine shots in the first quarter. Orlando blocked seven shots total in the game against Toronto, helping set a little bit of a tone. And that permeated out once the Magic got things going inside.

It turned into one of the Magic’s best all-around performances defensively in the last two months, part of a growing trend of good defensive performances for this team in a season that quickly went off the rails on that end.

And there were plenty of other firsts for the Magic. Or firsts in a long time defensively.

Orlando gave up fewer than 100 points in consecutive games for the first time since that win in Detroit in December. Back on that road trip that seemed to set the Magic on an ascendant course toward the Playoffs.

The 97.7 defensive rating against the Raptors was the Magic’s best defensive rating since that win over the Lakers before Christmas. And it was just the second game with a defensive rating better than a point per possession since that game.

Orlando’s defensive run of late has been something of a rare occurrence. The Magic have given up fewer than 100 points in regulation in the last three games.

That is a sign of progress.

“We were built to be a good defensive team,” Evan Fournier said. “That’s definitely the way we’ve got to play. That’s how we’re going to win games. Teams are going to score less than 100 points. It gives us good momentum defensively.”

Vogel had a vision for the Magic when he took over as head coach in June. And that vision seemed to crystallize with the roster the Magic put together.

Through the season’s first two months, the Magic seemed well on their way to building a strong defensive identity. They were locking down opponents as one of the top defensive units in the league through the first quarter of the season.

And then suddenly that defensive cohesion was lost. Orlando sank to the bottom as one of the worst in the league. And the Magic’s playoff hopes sank with the defensive aptitude.

This has been the greatest mystery and frustration in the Magic’s season. To make good on the still slim Playoff hopes, the Magic need to rediscover this defense and become that team once again (maybe with a little bit more offense).

Performances like Friday’s against the Raptors show that team is still in there somewhere. All those hopes and dreams are still present for the Magic. Orlando is four games out of that final playoff spot. After a win, that seems tantalizingly close rather than desperately far away.

The Magic did the basic things they have to do defensively to win. The things that have been far too inconsistent since December.

In the second half after that hard talk from Vogel, the Magic did better in the post. The Raptors scored just 10 points in the paint in the second half.

Nikola Vucevicwho struggled defending Valanciunas in the first half, toughened up and kept him out of the paint. The Magic were better digging and helping, flying back out to stop 3-point shooters.

They prevented Kyle Lowry from getting going. He made just 2 of 7 3-pointers in the second half and 2 of 11 for the game.

The Magic did what they need to do to win consistently.

“Defense is the top key,” C.J. Watson said. “Getting blocks, running in transition, getting to the free throw line and getting stops is the big key.”

The Magic picked up a pretty big win thanks to that return to their basic defensive principles. It was hard to complain about much of what the Magic did. Their third quarter alone was encouraging. But they matched it and held off the Playoff-bound Raptors.

As every Magic player seemed to recognize, winning one game does not matter if they cannot follow it up. With the way they have played defense this week, there is plenty of reason to believe things are building toward a win streak.

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