After two weeks of playing some of, if not the best defense the team has seen over the past four seasons, the Orlando Magic hit a road bump on Sunday night. Against a long, athletic Milwaukee Bucks team, the Magic struggled with some of the things that they’ve done well over the past two weeks when they posted the top defensive rating in the league.
Milwaukee abused the Magic in the painted area, scoring 56 points on 56 percent shooting. Orlando consistently saw the Bucks action cause them problems, with Milwaukee getting free for backdoor cut after backdoor cut. The inability to stop those plays, and turn the stops they did have into points, were too costly for the Magic on the night.
Part of the struggles on the defensive end can be attributed to the shocking lineup change that coach Frank Vogel made prior to the game. Switching up a unit that was having success on that end of the floor brings forth new combinations, and new learning curves, which Vogel said was part of the problems on the defensive end.
“Yes, and this is why I’m not a knee-jerk coach,” said Vogel. “Every time you make the changes guys are out there with different teammates and the chemistry gets altered a bit. So, sometimes you make a change to plug one hole and you create another hole by doing so. That was part of it; I feel like however these guys play we should be solid on the defensive end, but we didn’t have a good defensive start tonight.”
One player who struggled the most was Nikola Vucevic, who was coming off one of his better defensive performances of his career on Friday night. The incumbent starter at center seemed to lose his man time after time, and be in the wrong positions, easily getting beat by the Bucks players going downhill.
Evan Fournier also saw some struggles on that end, not only getting beat early, but struggling to defend bigger players while seeing extended time at the small forward spot. After playing small forward almost exclusively last year, Fournier has spent most of his time at his more customary off-guard spot this season. He’s struggled with some of the faster guards, and struggled tonight when tasked to guard bigger forwards.
As Vogel hinted at, making a knee-jerk reaction after tonight would be too much. For a team that had strung together seven straight strong defensive performances —tonight for the first time since the win in Oklahoma City that the Magic gave up over 95 points— one night, with a new lineup should be no surprise. If the issues continue when the team is on the road, that’s when worry should begin to set in yet again.
Missing Jeff Green due to a sore lower back, Vogel was going to have to make a lineup change no matter what. Yet, when the news came out about the Magic’s starting lineup, it wasn’t Green’s absence that was surprising.
In a shocking turn, Vogel completely shook up his lineup, turning to veteran point guard D.J. Augustin, and high-energy big man Bismack Biyombo to start in place of Elfrid Payton and Vucevic. The change, gave the Magic a slight spark early, but overall wasn’t very effective, with the defense, the team’s growing backbone, taking the aforementioned hit.
“We’re 30th in offense; I want to explore some new combinations in the same nine guys being in the rotation,” said Vogel. “Try to get a different feel, a different flow. Try to take the first quarter and put the ball in Evan Fournier’s hands more with a spot up three-point shooting point guard out there with him. I thought that part was effective. Utilize Biz [Bismack Biyombo] and Serge [Ibaka] together, with Biz as a roller and Serge as a spot up guy where he’s been effective and to get Elfrid [Payton] and Vooch [Nikola Vucevic] a different look coming off the second unit, going against second unit guys.
“Again, Vooch played near the same amount of minutes as he did the other night since we went to a three-man rotation with the big spot. It was really trying to give us a different feel, create a little bit of a different identity and see if some other things will work cause things have not been working for us on the offensive end. So, just looking at all our options.”
Vogel searching for things is not a surprise. The team has continuously struggled on the offensive end this season, and things clearly weren’t going to turn around had he stuck with the same thing. While it gave them a small boost early in the game, and Fournier put together one of his better scoring games of the season, the change ultimately proved to give them no real results.
“I spoke to Frank [Vogel] about it last night, and obviously I wasn’t happy with the decision they made,” said Vucevic. “I didn’t think that there was a reason for me to go to the bench, but it’s coaches decision. All I can do is control what I can control, which is when I’m on the court, play to the best of my ability and help the team win. Stay professional and whatever is going on, I’ll keep giving my best and give them my full effort.”
Vucevic has fair reason to be displeased with the move to the bench. While he’s struggled with his shot, he has improved on the defensive end, and over the past few games had appeared to be turning the corner some offensively. For a team that, as Vogel alluded to, struggles to score points, moving one of your best offensive players to the bench seems highly counter productive.
With a five-game road trip, and limited practice time coming up, making a drastic change like this could backfire on the Magic in a big way. After a disappointing three-game home stand, they’ll need to find something to keep things from spiraling completely out of control, but a change this big could just compound the issues even more.