Orlando Magic’s defense becoming habit

The Orlando Magic were the worst defense in the league for the last three weeks. Last week though showed signs the team is beginning to buy in on defense.

The Orlando Magic defense from the first weeks of the season was abysmal.

The supposed defensive identity Frank Vogel preached and said he would bring in was not taking hold. Opponents would blow by perimeter players, the help would be late, the weak-side was open for rebounds and put backs. The Magic gave up points in the paint with little impunity.

Teams were scoring and scoring a lot on the Magic.

The team was ranked 29th in the league in defensive rating, giving up 109.0 points per 100 possessions entering last Friday’s game against the Utah Jazz. This was a team lost on defense.

Since then, the Magic have begun turning things around. The defense has all of a sudden snapped to attention.

They have given up fewer than 90 points in three of the last four games — the only time they did not was when Russell Westbrook went into “tornado mode” —  and they have given up less than 40 percent shooting in each of the last two games. These are encouraging signs the Magic are beginning to turn things around defensively.

Something has taken hold.

“We’re improving,” coach Vogel said. “We’re getting a little better with our transition defense. Our box out technique and commitment is stronger. We played a good defensive game the other night. It was kind of lost in the feeling that we should have won by 100 points according to everyone.

“But we played a solid, fundamental, habits type of game. Hitting people, guarding our man one on one, working to get back in transition, having a tight shell around the paint. That was a lot of the focus of today’s film session. The habits are coming.”

That is the common refrain. It may have taken a while, but it is coming. And the strong defensive performances — along with a few wins — are reinforcing the team’s defensive strategy.

Serge Ibaka seemingly came alive early in the emotion of his return to Oklahoma City. He recorded four blocks in that game, including two stuffs on Steven Adams right at the rim on dunks. Nikola Vucevic has been better getting into defensive positioning. He blocked three shots against the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Magic have been a lot better about keeping their man in front of them, controlling forays into the paint and locking down the defensive glass.

In the past four games, the Magic have posted a 96.1 defensive rating in the last four games, sixth best in that time. They have risen from that low of 29th in the league to 15th in the league overall. It may still be the league median, essentially, but at least it is respectable.

Orlando has also improved across the board in some key defensive metrics. They have grabbed 78.4 percent of their defensive rebounds, ninth best in the league the last week. Their season average is 74.5 percent (25th in the league).

They also have given up 46.7 points in the paint per game, 23rd in the league. But in the last week, the team has conceded only 41.5 per game, 13th in the league in that time frame.

“We are creating habits,” Evan Fournier said. “It’s not second nature yet. But we are definitely creating habits. It is encouraging. But on both ways. We have good players offensively as well. We have times where we really move the ball and find the open shooter. At times we do it, but we have to be more consistent. It is obvious we are getting better.”

The offense remains the biggest weakness for the Magic. And, as the game against the Indiana Pacers proved, the team can still get blown out and struggle defensively when the offense is spinning its wheels.

More often than not, the Magic will win games when they give up fewer than 90 points. But perhaps giving up that few points is not sustainable. Eventually, the Magic will have to learn to win games 100-95 rather than 89-82. Ugliness only takes you so far.

But this new base for the Magic is a good sign that the team can turn things around and still accomplish their big goal this season — to make the Playoffs for the first time in five years. Despite the brutal losses already this season, the Magic are still very much in that race in this early part of the season with a bank of home games upcoming to build even more confidence.

The Magic are getting there defensively.

“I think with time, the more comfortable we get with the principles that coach wants us to play, the calls, everything, that takes time.” Nikola Vucevic said. “I think we are getting more comfortable with it. As time goes on, we’re only going to get better I think.”

Vucevic said in the last week the team’s communication has gotten better. Especially against New Orleans, Vucevic said the bigs did a good job helping the guards, allowing guards to recover and step in for steals or deflections or to help and recover behind them.

Evan Fournier said it was small adjustments that have turned things around defensively. They are boxing out better, switching and recovering better, controlling and corralling ball handlers one on one better.

It sounds simple, but these were the basic things the Magic were struggling with so much in the first weeks of the season.

Now it appears the team is figuring these things out and doing them more consistently. For the last four games, at least, the defense has been the roots for the rest of the team to grow, surviving some horrid offensive performances.

Vogel will be the first to say the team still has a long way to go defensively. They are not quite there yet. The team has had been famously inconsistent this season. Nobody knows what next week will bring with this team.

Tentatively, though, the Magic are beginning to make their defense a habit and the beginnings of an identity.

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