ORLANDO, Fla. — At the beginning of the season, the Orlando Magic envisioned playing a strong defensive style.
They hired Frank Vogel from the Indiana Pacers because of his defensive reputation. The team acquired Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo in the offseason to shore up their relatively weak rim protection, hoping to wall off the paint and prevent drives to the basket.
That plan fell flat on its face. Orlando’s defense struggled to get itself going and the team is essentially out of the playoff race.
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The Magic settled in defensively as the 21st-best defense in the league, giving up 106.9 points per 100 possessions. This is not the defense the Magic envisioned and certainly not enough to keep them in the postseason picture.
That was a main cause for the team moving on from Serge Ibaka and acquiring Terrence Ross before last week’s trade deadline. Orlando had to play smaller, becoming a much scrappier team. It represented a fundamental change defensively as much as anything.
It has been only three games, but the Magic are showing signs that their defense can take a turn for the better. They hope to continue the momentum when they host the surging Miami Heat on Friday.
Miami won for the 17th time in its last 20 games with a 125-98 victory over Philadelphia on Wednesday.
“With the way we’re going, we’re playing smaller,” Ross said. “When you play smaller, you play a lot faster. We’re a little more scrappy. We kind of get our hands more into pocket passes and try to take advantage of our mismatches and our speed. Any time you have that, it helps on the defensive end.”
The Magic gave up 100 points per 100 possessions in the three games since the All-Star Break, buoyed by a strong performance in a win Saturday. Despite losing 101-90 to the New York Knicks on Wednesday, the Magic allowed only 41 points in the second half.
Even Vogel was impressed with the team’s defensive effort in the game after struggling to start and digging themselves a deep hole. Orlando is still trying to learn to get a 48-minute effort.
For the Heat, defense is a given.
Erik Spoelstra is also a coach with a strong defensive reputation. And with Hassan Whiteside back in the fold as one of the best rim protectors, Miami remains one of the top defensive teams in the league. The Heat are sixth in the league in defensive rating, giving up 103.9 points per 100 possession this season.
Spoelstra won the Eastern Conference’s Coach of the Month for February. This is largely because of Miami’s run that has pulled it back into the playoff picture after it looked like the franchise was destined to compete for a high draft pick.
Miami is one game behind eight-place Detroit for the final playoff spot.
“I check how the other teams play,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic told the Palm Beach Post “My only concern is how we’re going to play. I feel like if you’re going to be 100 percent every day come in and do our job, put in a lot of work, we’re going to have a lot of good games that we can make the playoffs.”
Miami has some injury and illness issues. Dion Waiters is questionable for Friday’s game and Whiteside is dealing with an illness, but probably to play Friday.