Offense helping to boost Orlando Magic’s defense

The Orlando Magic have struggled on both ends so far this season. They found a spark on defense in the fourth. It might have been their offense.

The same refrain played itself out through the Orlando Magic’s early games so far this season.

The team would be cruising along and then hit a shooting slump. The ball just would not cooperate and go in or the team would get stuck trying to create, force things and press for offense. Inevitably shoulders would slump and the team would slide deeper into an abyss.

That abyss would then begin to swallow the defense. It did so in the third quarter of the opener against the Miami Heat and the second quarter against the Detroit Pistons. It did so too in the first half against the Cleveland Cavaliers and perhaps in the second quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Each game has had a devastating moment when the offense just shuts down and it permeates to the rest of the team.

The Magic are not hiding from this realization. Frank Vogel has said on numerous occasions how the team’s poor offense is contributing to the team’s poor defense in stretches. He has admitted it is natural for teams to get down on themselves when shots are not falling. The team just has to find a way to grind through it as best they can.

In these moments so far, the defense has been the big let down. It has not just struggled, but fallen off a cliff as the Magic have trailed by at least 15 points in all four games so far this season. Only in the last two games have the Magic really begun to fight.

Tuesday night’s win though provided a new narrative. A narrative of a team that used its offense to get back into the game and then its defense to finish it.

The Magic found their grit defensively, absent their offense, to gut out a win.

“Sometimes when the offense is not going the way you want to, it affects the defense,” Nikola Vucevic said. “I think it is natural. We just found a way. We talk about how you can always control your defense and always be good on that end. We fought through a lot of adversity last night. We just found a way. In the fourth quarter, when things weren’t going our way offensively always, we found a way to grind on defense and come up with the win.”

In the fourth quarter Tuesday, Nikola Vucevic said the Magic made some adjustments to the pick and roll defense and were much more aggressive in how they handled the guards. They forced five turnovers and limited the 76ers to 14 points and 26.3 percent shooting. Philadelphia posted a 58.9 offensive rating in the quarter.

It was perhaps the Magic’s best defensive quarter of the season.

The plays coach Frank Vogel pointed out before practice Wednesday were not always the obvious ones. Yes, Elfrid Payton‘s steal of Joel Embiid made the list. So too did deflections that Aaron Gordon made, particularly on one lob. So too did weak side rotations to help cover 3-pointers or deny the next pass on a rotation.

The Magic began to look like the swarming, switching defensive team they had always envisioned.

What was perhaps surprising about it was the Magic did all this without the benefit of a strong offense. They scored only 19 points and made 1 of 5 3-pointers in the quarter as well. They had just an 87.8 defensive rating as they had to make up a deficit and get over the hump in the fourth quarter.

The Magic missed their first seven shots in the quarter. Yet, they still found a way.

“Some of the things we can learn is definitely to fight, to stay with it even when we miss a lot of shots,” Jeff Green said. “Just continue to fight. One day, things are going to go our way and we will make shots. We’ve just got to keep that fight. It is going to allow us to beat teams by 15 or 20. We’ve just got to continue to fight.”

Perhaps that is the big lesson from the last two games — where the Magic cut down a 20-point lead to three in Cleveland and came back from 18 down to defeat the 76ers. They have been able to find some strength to fight through their offensive struggles, get some stops and create some offense where there was not any before.

The Magic’s shooting has been poor to say the least.

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Orlando is shooting a league-worst 40.8 percent from the field so far this year with a league-worst 44.7 percent effective field goal percentage. Finding open shots have been difficult and the Magic have not gotten into the transition game as much as they would like.

The team though did find a breakthrough in the third quarter Tuesday. And it was a big reason for the Magic’s sudden surge of confidence and defensive revival.

“We scored 41 points in the third quarter,” Vogel said. “All of a sudden our defense gets energized. That was my message the last couple practice days. . . . When you have a situation where you have a bad shooting night on the road and you pull out a win, that’s a good win. I’m very proud of those guys.”

The Magic made their first 11 shots in the quarter. And even though the defense was not particularly strong, giving up 30 points, the Magic took advantage of their opportunities and picked up their pace. The made shots brought renewed confidence and focus.

Orlando has not really had that for much of the season on that end. And expecting 41 points in a quarter every game is asking a bit much.

The Magic have had their slow starts this season — down 10-0 to the 76ers and the start to their game against the Cavaliers. They have come out of quarter breaks poor — the second quarter against the Pistons. And halftime poor — the third quarter against the Heat. It is hard to find much of anything consistent so far.

Any little boost the defense can get at this point will help. The Magic are trying to remain confident. Perhaps a win will help them take that next step.

Perhaps it is just making a few shots can get them over the hump.

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