Over the last month and a half, the Orlando Magic have seen their defense elude them on many nights, with the team struggling to string together stops and build any momentum. While some of that can be attributed to poor play offensively leading to poor energy on the defensive end, much is a case of just playing poorly, missing rotations and, at times, not appearing to care.
Sunday afternoon against the Atlanta Hawks, the Magic looked re-energized, stifling the Hawks on the end that's doomed them so many times this season.
Through their first 25 games of the season, the Magic's defense gave up 98.9 points per 100 possessions, good enough for seventh best in the league. Over their last 25 games, ranging from December 17th to Sunday, the Magic fell off a cliff, giving up nearly nine points more per 100 possessions, allowing their oppositions to score 107.6 per 100 possessions. Those struggles have led them to an abysmal 8-17 stretch, taking them out of the playoff hunt for now.
Yet Sunday was a different story.
From the tap, the Magic were flying all over the court, forcing the Hawks into mistake after mistake, and capitalizing on them. Orlando turned seven Hawks mistakes into 12 early points, with the team also notching eight fast break points in the opening quarter. The energy, which propelled the Magic out to an early double digit lead, was refreshing, with the team carrying it over for much of the game.
According to Evan Fournier, getting off to a good start was something the team had talked about all season long. "When we play defense, we are usually in a good position to win the game," said Fournier.
However, late in the game when it matter, things began to unravel for the hosts. Their defense faltered late, losing Hawks players on multiple possessions in the fourth quarter, leading to open looks. Those looks, which Atlanta continually knocked down, allowed the visitors to claw their way back into it, tying the game up late in the going.
While their inability to play high level defense for 48 minutes is alarming, it's still a good sign that they were able to buckle down, and get back to what was allowing them to be successful in the opening portion of the season. When the final buzzer rang, the Magic had a defensive rating of 98.3, per NBA.com/stats -- in the first three quarters, they posted a defensive rating of 76.4 -- and kept the Hawks under 100 points -- the first time the Magic have done so since losing to the Philadelphia 76ers on January 20th.
"I felt like, beginning to end, our overall defense was pretty solid against them except for the fourth quarter," said coach Scott Skiles. "[K]ind of offensive rebounds and the threes we don't want to give up there... [T]he main thing was the rebounding. We couldn't get a key rebound. But, overall, out defense was better than it has been, so we'll take that as progress."
Aside from the teams strong defense as a whole -- they also blocked 10 shots to go along with their nine steals -- individual performances made the difference on the afternoon.
Aaron Gordon, who struggled from the field, locked down Paul Millsap for much of the afternoon, holding the All-Star reserve to just 14 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Victor Oladipo, Evan Fournier and Mario Hezonja all took cracks at chasing sharp-shooter Kyle Korver around, holding the usually white hot Korver to 4-of-10 shooting on the day, with two of those makes coming in the fourth quarter.
Gordon, who made his presence known with a couple of big blocks, knows that helping his team defensively is something he thrives at. "It's one of the things that I can do. Block shots and protect the rim. If one of my teammates gets blown by, especially at the end of the shot clock when you can really go after it. I just had to do the little things tonight and that's what I did."
From the start of the season, the Magic have talked about wanting, and needing to have their defense be their back bone. While it's eluded them for the last portion of the year, the fact they were able to turn it on and shut down an offense with the fire power of the Hawks is a welcoming sign.
They still have a long way to go as was evident by the fourth quarter -- their defensive rating in that quarter alone was 176.2 -- but putting it together, even if it was for only 36-40 minutes, is good. With the All-Star break on the horizon they'll have a chance to not only get healthy -- C.J. Watson has been ramping up his activity of late -- but also get some much needed practice time in to shore up some of their issues on both ends of the floor.
Sunday was a step in the right direction for the Magic, and now they'll look to carry some of their momentum over into Monday night in Atlanta.