His drive to the basket seemed equal parts stubborn and confident. Victor Oladipo had the taller, but slower, Serge Ibaka guarding him, and 37 points to his name so far. With the score tied and seconds left, the moment seemed ripe for Oladipo to put a bow on his big night by leading his plucky, slumping Orlando Magic past the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Ibaka was ready, though.
As Oladipo darted toward the basket, the lanky forward slid alongside him step-for-step, before rising to send Oladipo’s layup attempt careening off the backboard.
Suffice it to say, the following moments didn’t go much better for Orlando.
Oladipo earned that final shot attempt – beyond Wednesday, he’s been surging offensively the last couple weeks – but it was indicative of one of the weaknesses facing the Magic’s offense this season. Not attacking the basket -- an area where the team excels. The problem arises when the lanes close up on players as they drive to the rim. Rather than check down to a better option, Magic players seem to stick to Plan A a little too often.
That late-game play wasn’t the first time the Magic had a shot blocked at the rim Wednesday night; the Thunder had 10 blocks Wednesday (Ibaka had six alone). Oklahoma City is one of the better shot-blocking teams in the league, but it’s not uncommon for Orlando to get stuffed at the rim. Their opponents average 5.8 blocked shots a game, the third-most in the NBA.
Orlando is 15th in the league in drives per game, not all that surprising if you watch the team’s guards. Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton, Oladipo – their strongest offensive trait is penetrating, and getting to the basket. All of them, though, have yet to develop the ability to consistently pass out of the paint when a situation goes south. None of them pass out of drives more than 30 percent of the time. And the Magic shoot a meager 43 percent on drives -- Oladipo shoots 34.5 percent on them alone.
By comparison, on shots closer than three feet, Oladipo shoots about 53 percent. Fournier and Payton have similar discrepancies. The three, as good at penetrating the paint as they are, run into problems when they get a head of steam behind them.
They should be looking to pass more.
They should especially take the blinders off when considering how surprisingly well the team has shot the ball this season. Coming into the year, it was seen as one of the Magic’s biggest weaknesses, but so far, so good. Orlando is sixth in shooting percentage on catch and shoots, and in the top-10 in catch and shoots from three. That’s something that could really be utilized off of Orlando guards’ penetration skills.
Even better, three of the four players who shoot the best and score the most off catch and shoots are not those penetrating guards. Jason Smith, Nikola Vucevic and Channing Frye are great at hitting spot-up jumpers (Frye’s capable of doing so from long-range). The trio leads the team in shooting percentage on such shots, and each of them generates between 4 and 4.5 points per game on those jumpers.
Many of the players mentioned are part of Orlando’s young core. That then, could be the basis of an effective offense this season and beyond: suck in some of the defense, and kick out to shooters who have been defying odds all season long. By modifying the approach to dribble drives, the Magic could leverage two of their strengths into a better offense.
The team’s drive-and-kick offense could be dangerous, should its guards ever embrace the latter half of that equation.