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Offense was good enough, but inconsistent defensive effort downs Magic

Orlando ended their scoring drought, but struggled to get stops against the Suns Wednesday night

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret to anyone that follows the Orlando Magic that they struggle on offense. The team has been assembled and designed to thrive on the defensive end. The team’s defensive identity, energy, and aptitude is supposed to lead to offense for the Magic.

The Magic entered play on Wednesday night against the Suns losers of six of their last eight (four of those contests were lost by more than 20 points). The two wins in Mexico City, wedged in between two three-game losing streaks, were low-scoring affairs where the club’s defensive efforts made the difference.

Orlando had failed to eclipse 100 points in a game in their last six contests heading into play against Phoenix, and their Offensive Rating had dropped to a season-low 103.8 (27th in the league).

That all changed yesterday against the Suns; you could see the difference in Orlando’s offense from the opening tip. The Magic were making it a point to get the ball into the paint early in the contest. The Magic scored 32 points in the game’s opening period, many of those points coming at the rim.

“Offensively we were a lot better (tonight),” Coach Clifford said in his post-game conference. “In the first quarter, we had ten deflections, and they should have had (only) 20 points at the end of the first quarter. And they’re very good offensively. But in the second quarter, we had just four (deflections). That’s the way it went - our activity went down, our energy went down, our determination on the ball went down, and our rim protection wasn’t as good.”

Coach Clifford was very clear after the game regarding where he felt things went wrong for the Magic. Orlando scored enough to beat the Suns Wednesday night, but it was their defense this time around that really let them down.

Orlando’s team defensive efforts slipped significantly in the second quarter, when the Suns outscored the Magic 36-21 in the period. Clifford started staggering his lineups mid-way through the first quarter, and you could see/feel the offensive and defensive rhythm the Magic were playing with earlier in the game slip away.

Coach Clifford’s bench, a unit that has struggled for a large part of this season, let him down last night in a big way.

“Its a challenge,” Clifford said when asked about the difficulty of finding a second unit lineup that works. “Same thing tonight, part of what happened in overtime is those guys are out there so much and so long, but it’s out of necessity.

“Tonight you can look at the numbers, I thought the starters were really good in the first half,” Clifford added. “I thought they (his first unit) started the game terrific, they should have been up more. We broke the lineup in the first half and lost the lead quickly. We did it differently in the second half, and the problem is those guys can’t play minutes like this. We have eight (games) in the next 14 nights. We’re going to have to, or I’m going to have to figure out ways to do that.”

Clifford was more reluctant to go to his bench in the second half. Three Orlando starters (D.J. Augustin, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic) logged over 39 minutes each in the contest. Sticking with the starters worked for the Magic, they closed Phoenix’s double-digit lead in the game by outscoring the Suns in both the third and fourth quarters (34-28, 31-28).

The Magic scored 30 or more points in three of the four quarters in last night’s game; again, the offense was not the problem.

Getting stops in the second quarter, as well as down the stretch in the fourth quarter, proved to be Orlando’s downfall in the game.

Phoenix’s offense was powered by their leading scorer, fourth-year guard Devin Booker. Booker sat out Orlando’s game against the Suns in Phoenix earlier in the month.

The Suns used Booker on offense in a variety of ways. He was equally as dangerous both on-the-ball and off it. Phoenix hurt Orlando numerous times running a Booker-Ayton high pick-and-roll, and they also set a handful of elbow and baseline screens for Booker (playing off the ball) as well.

“He’s a good player, he’s a very good offensive player,” Evan Fournier said in the locker room after the game. Fournier was the primary defender assigned with the task of slowing Booker down Wednesday.

“He can get going in a lot of ways, and they run a lot of plays for him,” Fournier explained. “It’s a tough coverage, they have that pick-and-roll with Ayton. He’s a good screener (Ayton), so you have to fight through that.”

As a team, the Suns shot 50.5 percent from the field, four percentage points higher than the average field goal percentage Orlando holds teams to (46.5%). The Suns did most of their damage from three-point range, shooting 54% on three-point attempts in the contest (13-24 3PTA’s). Five of their thirteen three-point makes came from Booker (T.J. Warren and Kelly Oubre Jr. both chipped in with three three-point makes as well).

“I don’t think our offense was the issue tonight, it was our defense,” Nikola Vucevic added after last night’s contest. “I thought we started really well, especially compared to the last couple of games.”

“On both ends, we were playing really well - we were all over the place and got some steals,” Vucevic said. “And then we just didn’t keep it up. Even in the third, when we went on a run, they went on a run to close the quarter out to take the lead back. We just weren’t consistent with it.”

The Magic went 1-10 from the field in the game’s overtime period, which clearly had a lot to do with their starters tired legs after playing extended minutes through four quarters.

Regardless, the Magic scored enough to win the game (and then some) Wednesday night, but inconsistent defensive effort during certain pockets and windows of the game directly led to Orlando’s demise.

Things won’t get any easier for the Magic. They go from hosting the Suns, owners of the worst record in the Western Conference, to welcoming the Raptors to the Amway Center Friday night. Toronto currently sports the best record in the NBA.