It is time to start believing in the Orlando Magic’s defense

The Orlando Magic wanted to build an elite defense with their offseason. It has taken time for things to come together. But the defense looks real.

OrlandoMagic

89

MilwaukeeBucks

93

Frank Vogel’s reputation preceded him.

When the Orlando Magic brought him in, it was to force the defensive identity Rob Hennigan had preached from the very beginning of the rebuild. With cap room to spend, the Magic proceeded to remake their roster in that image — acquiring Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo and seeking out versatility in someone like Jeff Green and even D.J. Augustin.

Vogel had built top-10 defenses in Indiana with several different personnel groups. Reshaping this team with veterans to add to some young players with defensive potential, the Magic believed he could work his (um) magic on this group.

The results early were poor.

Orlando gave up tons of dribble penetration, points in the paint and second-chance opportunities. The Magic were reeling defensively, sinking to the bottom of the league nearly a week ago.

A small lineup tweak and six games later, the Magic had risen to the middle of the pack in the league in defensive rating. There were signs the defense was perking up.

But that was against the Utah Jazz without George Hill, the Indiana Pacers with a still hobbled Paul George, the New Orleans Pelicans without Anthony Davis and the Dallas Mavericks without Dirk Nowitzki or any NBA-familiar point guards. Those seemed like hollow victories, even though the Magic held most of those opponents to less than 90 points and gave themselves every chance to win.

There remained skepticism about just how good the Magic’s defense was. Especially since Orlando could not blow out New Orleans or Dallas and lost big to Indiana despite the strong defense.

Monday’s 93-89 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks at BMO Harris Bradley Center might very well be the statement defensive game. The Magic’s defense is not a figment of anyone’s imagination. It is strong, together and stifling. Allowing 93 points should be more than enough to win more often than not.

In other words, the Orlando Magic’s defense is legitimate. It is something the team can ably rely on now. It has become their staple and their identity. The backstop when things go wrong for the team or when they cannot score.

The Magic may not be able to win games playing defense alone, but they can certainly stay in a game because of what their defense can do.

Against the Bucks on Monday, the Magic posted a 91.0 defensive rating. It is in line with their defensive play of late.

Since making the lineup change against the Jazz, the Magic have posted a 94.0 defensive rating, the best mark in the league in that time.

Milwaukee is not the strongest offensive team. But still to hold a team down that much and post such a strong mark is a good sign the defense has more than turned a corner.

It was not even just that the Magic locked down the Bucks, it was their strategy in doing so.

Elfrid Payton was feisty with Matthew Dellavedova. He recorded three steals in the game, but harassed him throughout the game, keeping him out of the paint, digging down into the post for steals and preventing him from initiating the offense.

Serge Ibaka had defensive duties on Jabari Parker. Until Parker got hot from beyond the arc, Ibaka was hanging back and letting him shoot. That was a sound strategy considering Parker is shooting 31.3 percent from the floor.

Jeff Green did much the same with Giannis Antetokounmpo. He laid off him, inviting him to drive or shoot, guiding him into the teeth of the defense where Ibaka or even Nikola Vucevic was waiting. And then the Magic sprang back to the 3-point line and closed out the Bucks shooters.

Milwaukee shot a 45.3 percent effective field goal percentage for the game and 40.7 percent shooting. The Bucks made just 8 of 29 3-pointers. That is some pretty strong defense from the Magic no matter how anyone wants to slice it.

Where Orlando showed some weakness was in transition. After missed shots and turnovers — 19 of them in the first half alone — the Bucks got out in transition and beat the Magic as they organized their defense. Milwaukee got 27 fast break points.

When Orlando did not get its defense set, the team found itself in trouble. There are still moments of miscommunication for the team, particularly in these moments. The Bucks’ best offense was in transition. It was how they first took the lead in the second quarter.

In the half court, they found it incredibly difficult to score. Other teams are finding it difficult too.

Serge Ibaka has rounded into form after struggling early in the season. He recorded three blocks in Monday’s game in addition to his solid perimeter defense. Bismack Biyombo is still lurking around the paint too, changing shots when he does not block them.

The Magic still have a lot to clean up. They always do.

Vogel will likely tell anyone who asks about the defense’s improvement that the Magic still have a long way to go. And, in some ways, they do.

The defense does not create the same fast break opportunities as the Bucks were able to get. The offense is still a long ways away and that puts even more stress on the defense.

The Magic’s defense had to be perfect down the stretch and they still made critical mistakes that cost them the game — Ibaka committed a needless foul contesting a Parker 3-pointers as the shot clock expired, the ensuing free throws made it a two-possession game with less than a minute to play.

But Orlando’s defense is putting the team in position to win, no matter the competition. The Magic have stood tall because of their defense. They have turned their season around, in some ways, because of their defense.

They have finally found their identity. And the defense has taken firm root for the Magic.

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