An old adage in sports, one that we are all too familiar with, goes something like this: “defense wins championships.”
It’s yet to be determined if that’s in the cards for the 2019-20 version of the Orlando Magic. But what we do know is that their defense is the reason why they were successful last night in a 95-83 victory over the visiting New York Knicks. It’s the reason why they've won two games this season, and it’s the reason why they’ve even been competitive in the other two contests.
“We’re not different than any other teams. The shorter preseason, we’re finding our way offensively,” Coach Clifford said during his post-game conference Wednesday night. “I do believe we have such grant defensive talent on our roster. (My thing was) through this first ten or twelves games, we can defend and compete our way through - until we get our offense going.”
The Magic won last night despite failing to score 100 points or more for the fourth consecutive game this season. However, Orlando held New York to a mere 83 points, by far their lowest total points output of the season.
“We’ve still got a lot to improve on,” Markelle Fultz said in the locker room after the game Wednesday night. “But I think that we’re really excited for the potential and the work that were going to put in to be a great defensive team.”
You can certainly make an argument that the Magic have been exactly that through the first week of the regular season: a great defensive team. Orlando currently ranks second in the NBA in opponent points per game (93.8 pts/g), while ranking third in overall defensive rating (95.9).
Orlando held the Cleveland Cavaliers to 85 points on opening night. Cleveland has scored 110 points or more in their three contests since visiting Orlando (against Indiana, Milwaukee, and Chicago).
“(I think) it’s been huge,” Fultz added about his team’s defensive play so far in the regular season. “I think it’s one of the things that we try to live by. Make that be one of our offensive things; get it on defense and get it in transition. I think we’ve been really good on defense.”
The Magic were pretty flat Wednesday night in the first half against the Knicks, trailing the lottery-bound team by three points at halftime. But they played with noticeably more energy, physicality, and purpose of play coming out of the locker room in the second half. Some guys started to see the ball go in the basket (which has been pretty rare thus far in ‘19), but that never affected nor changed their approach on the other end of the floor.
Orlando held New York to a season-low 16 points in the game’s final period.
“Defensively, we were really tied together keeping them out of transition and keeping them off the glass,” Aaron Gordon said after the game, assessing his team’s play against the Knicks Wednesday night. “We’re a pretty good defensive team.”
“It’s something that we pride ourselves on, it’s something that we know that we’re capable of,” Gordon added regarding his team’s overall defensive abilities. “They (the coaching staff) give us a great defensive game-plan. As long as we follow the game-plan, the talent and the play-makers take over.”
One of the defensive standouts last night was Orlando’s third-year forward Jonathan Isaac, whose overall play has steadied the Magic throughout the course of the early season.
Isaac recorded three blocks against the Knicks, and he now ranks second in the NBA in both total blocks and blocks per game. Opponents are shooting just under 35% from the field when guarded by the Florida State product.
“His defense (last night) was terrific. He had a couple really nice help blocks, which kind of igniting us for fast break chances too,” Coach Clifford said after the game of Isaac’s performance against New York Wednesday night.
Isaac is not the only player getting in done on the defensive end. According to NBA.com, the Magic have three players that rank in the top-10 in the NBA in defensive rating (Terrence Ross ranks first, Al-Farouq Aminu ranks second, Fultz ranks seventh). It’s obviously too early in the season to be monitoring statistical league rankings, but it’s still very clear that the Magic (as a group) having been getting it done defensively.
“It’s very important for us, it has to be what we have to do every night,” Nikola Vucevic said about his team’s defensive prowess. “(Our defense) is going to give us a chance. The games we’ve (played), the offense wasn’t great, but we were right there until the end because our defense kept us in those games.”
The offense hasn’t be great, Vucevic is correct about that. Orlando ranks dead last in the NBA in scoring (95.8 pts/g), team field goal percentage (39.5%), and eFG% (45%). They currently stand at 28th in the league with an offensive rating of 98.0. That kind of offensive inefficiency is going to leave you on the losing end most nights.
The bottom line: this team has started 2-2 out of the gate, but they could very easily be sitting at 0-4 if not for their exemplary defensive efforts. There’s confidence in Orlando’s locker room that shots will start dropping more regularly sometime soon, but until that time arrives, the Magic must keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing on the defensive side of the floor.
What other choice do they have? They have to keep grinding - this team’s identity, their make-up, it’s all about stopping the guy in front of them. It’s all about defense.
“As long as our defense is there, we’re going to give ourselves a chance (this year),” Vucevic added. “We understand that’s what it has to be for us. The way this team is built, we have some guys that can score, but at the end of the day - it has to be our defense. We understood that last year, and I think that has carried over to this year.”