Building a strong defense takes multiple different layers. From having guys who can protect the paint and be physical in the post, to guys who can lock down players on the perimeter and bring help in a pinch, building a strong defense doesn’t happen overnight.
With aspirations to be one of the top defensive teams in the league, the Orlando Magic have gotten off to a sluggish start on that end. Coming into Thursday night’s bout with the Sacramento Kings, the Magic ranked 26th in the league in defensive rating, far below the top-5 spot they believed they could hold coming into the season.
Against the Kings, the defense, while doing some good things, got off to a poor start on the stat sheet, giving up 57 percent shooting in the opening quarter, and 24 points to the combination of Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins. While they were unable to slow the physical specimen Cousins down all night, they were able to trip up Gay, thanks in large part to Aaron Gordon.
Gordon, the third-year gadget forward who’s bounced between the small forward and power forward position his first two years, made the necessary adjustments after giving up 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting, including a pair of three-pointers, in the opening quarter against Gay. After that, the veteran was frustrated by the physicality and athleticism Gordon brought to the table, finishing with just six points the rest of the way.
The Arizona product has consistently preached that everything is about the team, and not just one player, and continued to do so after the victory. “Defense is a five man thing,” said the high flying forward. “Rudy got open off of some rotations, missed assignments, so and so. When I can play one-on-one defense, and really guard my man, I think I can be a good defender. The physicality of the game was to my liking.”
While Cousins, who finished the night with an efficient 33 points, continued to terrorize the Magic’s big men, Gay was quiet, not getting to his spots and not getting clean looks on many possessions.
Evan Fournier, who caught fire after struggling the first four games of the year, knows how challenging it is to guard the physical small forwards like a Rudy Gay. “It’s big, man,” said Fournier. “Last year I was playing small forward a little bit; I can tell you it’s not easy. You get tired, but that’s why we have such high expectations on AG. He’s a strong kid, willing to defend tough, and it’s great.”
Fournier, who finished the night with a team-high 29 points, 19 of which came in the second half, thought Gordon did a great job on Gay in the second half defensively. The French swingman noted that the likes of Gay and Cousins are aggressive, strong and can shoot, but he thought Gordon was smart and tough and did a great job, saying it was one of the keys to holding the Kings to 94 points.
“Rudy got free for a couple of three’s early, but I thought by and large we were doing a good job containing him and not letting him get to the basket,” said coach Frank Vogel. “Aaron did a good job, he’s got good size and athleticism. He’s going to be asked to take those assignments, in terms of that elite scoring small forward and he did a great job on him tonight.”
It wasn’t just Gordon who turned things around for the Magic on the defensive end. With little momentum, the second unit gave them a big boost, thanks in large part to Bismack Biyombo’s high energy plays on the defensive end.
The marquee free agent signee blocked an Omri Casspi layup attempt, saved the ball and got it down the floor for a Jeff Green dunk. An arrant inbounds pass from the Kings gave Biyombo a steal, leading to a D.J. Augustin three-pointer to tie the game.
While Gordon’s ability to slow down Gay — the only Kings player not named Cousins to really score — was big, the second unit’s energy was nearly equally large.
As the Magic continue to grow on both ends of the floor, and find the continuity they need to have to be the top-5 defensive team they’re striving for, Gordon is going to play a big role. With a league chalked full of talented, physical small forwards, having someone like Gordon is big for the Magic.
“I love it, I love it. It’s a physical game. It’s fun to me,” said Gordon when asked about defending those bigger, physical small forwards.
It’s still early, but Gordon is going to play a big role across the board for the Magic, especially on the defensive end.