Throughout training camp and the preseason, Orlando Magic coach Jacque Vaughn stressed the importance of playing a stronger and more physical game, especially at the defensive end. The Indiana Pacers, with their starting big man rotation of Roy Hibbert and David West, will test the Magic on that lesson plan early.
Orlando opens its regular season Tuesday in Indy against the Pacers, who reached the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago with a physical, suffocating defense which led the league in points per possession allowed.
"It's a tough challenge," Magic center Nikola Vučević said Saturday of Orlando's opening-night matchup. "They're one of the best frontlines in the league and I just have to match their physicality."
Fortunately for Vučević and the rest of the Magic, Orlando brought in veteran big man Jason Maxiell as a free agent, in large part to help their flagging defense, which ranked 25th in defensive efficiency a year ago. Maxiell is listed at 6-foot-7--though he'll privately admit to being a few inches shorter than that figure--but has survived eight NBA seasons because he plays hard and does the so-called dirty work at both ends of the floor. He said Saturday he takes "great pride" in his reputation as a gritty, no-nonsense player.
In addition to their brute strength, the Pacers' frontline boasts great size, another factor which confounds opponents. Hibbert, at 7-foot-3, is particularly monstrous, not only for his size but also for the intelligent way he protects the rim without fouling. "You're not really used to [his size]," Vučević said. The key to attacking Hibbert offensively, according to Orlando's own seven-footer, is to "find ways to go around him."
Defending him is a different animal. Hibbert isn't as highly regarded for his offense, but Vučević pointed out that Indiana plays through him in the post often. Maxiell said an important aspect of defending Hibbert is establishing good position early.
"You gotta hit him early before he hits you," Maxiell said. "That's one key I'm gonna tell Kyle [O'Quinn] and Vuč: beat him up early. You might get one foul, but you're gonna set the tone early of how it's gonna be a long night."
Maxiell could spend some time defending Hibbert, but he figures to do much of his work against West, Indiana's 6-foot-9 power forward. "I've been guarding him now going on nine years," Maxiell said, "so I pretty much know his game and what he's gonna do. Matching up with him is gonna be like an everyday job for me."
Expecting an Orlando victory might be too optimistic, though the Magic will certainly play as though they believe they have a chance against this Eastern contender. Regardless of the result in the standings, Tuesday's opener offers a chance for the Magic to check their progress in one of their key offseason goals. Maxiell probably summarized that idea best:
"It's gonna be a good test for us to see where we're at with our own self, see how physical we are down low."