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Defensive issues plague Orlando Magic in loss to Portland Trail Blazers

The Magic defense got burned on Thursday night, and that can’t happen if they want to win.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday night was not good for the Orlando Magic’s defense.

After holding the Boston Celtics to 90 points in a win on Monday night, the Magic gave up a season-high 128 to the Portland Trail Blazers, in an bad loss on Thursday. Despite shooting over 50 percent from the field, and scoring 114 of their own, the Magic’s continued blown coverages, and inability to stop Damian Lillard in the second half, cost them.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Evan Fournier when I asked him about the defensive issues following a solid game on Monday night. “These are the games we can’t give. We get momentum, have a very good game on the road against a good team. You play at home you get beat. If you want to build momentum, you have to win these games.”

Finding a way to steal games like last night is important for the Magic if they hope to make a run for the playoffs.

If their defense is going to struggle like it did, however, they’ll be sitting at home once again come late April and into May. The Magic are a team built to play defense, and when the opposition shoots over 55 percent from the field, it’s not going to allow them to stay in games.

“The biggest thing tonight was the defense,” said coach Steve Clifford after the game. “There’s two things you have to do to be able to win in this league, and that’s control the ball somewhat, even against the great players. You have to have a place you’re trying to send it, and send it there. Then you have to have schemes, coverages so when the ball goes to a certain spot your organized and guys know what they have to do.

“The other one that goes with that is you have to be able to control cutters so they don’t get so much separation away from you that they have room to play. We didn’t do either one of those. . . One-on-one defense, starting with how we defended them off the ball, and the separation we gave them.”

Portland boasts on of the best backcourt duos in the league in Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and the Magic did, generally, a good job of slowing them down early, holding the duo to 16 points in the first half. It was Portland’s big men in Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins that beat the Magic early, combining for 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting in the half.

After the half, the blown coverages continued, and it got ugly, and fast for the Magic.

Lillard, after scoring just seven in the opening half, exploded in the third quarter, scoring 19 of his 34 second-half points, putting more pressure on the Magic defense, especially in the pick-and-roll. Orlando’s inability to slow Lillard down led to more lapses, and in turn, more blown coverages. The 41 points Lillard finished with are the most a Blazer has ever scored against the Magic, and his 34 second-half points were two off the franchise record for most scored in half, done by James Harden and Allen Iverson.

“We were a little too far off the body,” said Aaron Gordon. “That pistol was giving us problems all night, and that’s where we weren’t executing like we needed to.”

The space the Magic have allowed players, especially off the pick-and-roll this season, has consistently hurt them.

In their blowout loss to the Charlotte Hornets last week, Kemba Walker took advantage of soft defense, firing off almost every pick he got. As Nikola Vucevic sits back on the pick, and the defender, usually D.J. Augustin fails to get over the pick, it leaves open space for point guards to operate.

While the scheme, in theory, could work, it hasn’t early on. Augustin, and reserve guard Jerian Grant’s inability to go under the screen and get into the body of the offensive player, has burned them, and will continue to do so in a league chalked full of top-tier point guards.

The defensive struggles Thursday night aside, the Magic know what they have to do. They have to come out and bring it from the start, something they didn’t do on Thursday night.

“We weren’t good right from the jump tonight,” said Clifford. “We started off the first five minutes, it was mistake after mistake and we went from playing a game in Boston where we were locked into things, we knew out coverages, everybody was organized, to tonight where right from the beginning, we had stretches where we were okay, but again we weren’t thinking [on] defense.”

The Magic have all the tools to become one of the leagues best on the defensive end, but games like Thursday night can’t happen. They can’t continue to lose games where their offense shows up like it did, and the defense doesn’t.

To get to where they want to go, the defense has to be there, and it wasn’t on Thursday night against Portland.