Atlanta Hawks
Orlando Magic count on offense, finish with defense
Atlanta Hawks

Orlando Magic count on offense, finish with defense

Updated Mar. 4, 2020 1:55 p.m. ET

The Orlando Magic had a strong offensive game throughout their win over the Atlanta Hawks. But it was getting back to defense that secured the win.


Elfrid Payton pushed the pace to end the third quarter following Kyle Korver breaking free for a 3-pointer to tie the game. The Orlando Magic, and specifically Elfrid Payton, was aggressive and attacking the Atlanta Hawks’ defense coming at them and ripping them apart with the pass, as Frank Vogel wanted.

Payton raced to the other end of the floor and fired a perfect cross-court pass to Jodie Meeks. The quick-shooting Jodie Meeks fired for three and gave Orlando a 3-point lead heading to the final quarter.


The score? 99-96.

Hardly the score the Magic are used to seeing through three quarters. And one that does not seem sustainable for one of the worst offenses in the league, as improved recently as it might be.

It always felt the other shoe was waiting to drop for the Magic. They saw a 10-point halftime lead evaporate quickly as the Hawks upped their defensive intensity and sprinted past a weakened Magic defense.

For the second time in five games, the Magic’s offense, led by Payton, was just too much for the opponent to overcome. But like the win over the Washington Wizards a week ago, the Magic could not secure victory over the Hawks until their defense kicked into some gear.

It was not until they locked in to play even a minor bit of defense that the game turned for a 131-120 win at Philips Arena on Tuesday.

The Magic held the Hawks to a game-low 24 points in the fourth quarter and a 98.7 offensive rating. Atlanta shot just 10 for 22 and 2 for 9 from beyond the arc in the quarter. That will get the job more often than not, turning a close game into a comfortable win.

The most memorable play for the Magic, the game-clinching one, came when the Magic turned the ball over and faced a 2-on-1 fast break. As the Hawks prepared to lay the ball in, Bismack Biyombo blocked it against the glass at the last moment while trailing the play.

Orlando pushed it the other way and got Serge Ibaka a short floater. It gave the Magic a 12-point lead with about three minutes to go and put the game out of reach. It was about the only defensive highlight the Magic had.

For the fifth straight game, their defense remained very sloppy. The Hawks got into the paint for 56 points. They crashed the offensive glass with Dwight Howard overpowering Bismack Biyombo time and time again.


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The Magic did not have the defensive precision for most of the night.

It slowly came, though. For at least a quarter, the Magic began to play defense at that high level again. They rotated to close out shooters, dug down to help the helper and secured the offensive rebound.

The Magic’s offense was just such a juggernaut that it covered for all the mistakes they were making.

Here it is perhaps the first five minutes of the third quarter that prove the most instructive — and serve as the biggest warning for this team.

It was there the Hawks pressured the Magic into mistakes for the first and only time and forced tough shots. It was there the Magic fell into their bad habits, failing to trust the pass, as Vogel puts it, and relying too much on isolation ball. Things that came so easy suddenly were difficult.

Orlando had to break that habit and still do offensively. The team will not shoot 58.6 percent and make 15 3-pointers every game. They may not do that in any other game this season.

Even with the offense still showing signs of improvement — Vogel said the team’s togetherness and recent play coming off the road trip does have him encouraged the team is moving in the right direction –this is still one of the worst offenses in the league.

Winning games with offense is going to be difficult.

As Orlando has proven already this season, the team can put up a strong offensive performance and then lay an egg the next night. After defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder 119-116, the Magic scored a season-low 69 points in an 88-69 loss to the Indiana Pacers. After scoring 124 points against the Wizards, the team scored just 87 points in a 30-point loss to the Boston Celtics at home.

This game marked just the second time all season the Magic scored 100 points in consecutive games.

The Magic are not likely to rely on their offense. And falling into the trap of thinking they can take and make a lot of 3-pointers or generate these kinds of scores is dangerous for this team.

Orlando put up all these crazy offensive stats and still found the game close entering the fourth quarter.

The Magic only began to take control when their defense picked up.

The stretch in the first quarter when the team got back from its slow start was thanks to their good shot contests and the turnovers they forced. They extended and expanded their lead in the fourth quarter thanks to a much more focused defensive effort.

Orlando has shown some capability to score. The team has the capability to play better than its statistics. But these averages and trends are likely more set in stone. The team is not likely to become offensive juggernauts any time soon, even if they creep to respectability.

That is a lesson the team still has to learn. One that has cost the team in the past.

Offense is not going to win the team any games on its own. Not typically. And relying on that — as the team seemed to in Saturday’s loss to the Denver Nuggets — is fraught with danger.

The Magic said all the right things with their first practice. Defense would have to be the focus. The team has to find a way to fight back into the top five in defensive rating and become one of the best defenses in the league once again.

Most of Tuesday’s win did not provide much optimism. The team struggled defensively and just pulverized the Hawks offensively with a constant attack at the basket.

The game did not get put away, though, until the Magic buckled down defensively. They did just enough defense to get the win.

That will not be enough down the road. The offense is not something the team can rely on quite yet. The defense has to get back to that level. Offensive performances like Monday need to become blowouts, not relatively tight affairs.

With the way the Magic can play defense, even a halfway competent offense can give them a chance. That remains a lesson the Magic are trying to learn.

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