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Orlando’s defense helped them beat the high-scoring Hawks, and that’s how things need to be

The Magic were able to cool-off one of hottest offensive teams in the league Sunday night

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In the NBA, especially at this point in the season, team records can often be deceiving. The Atlanta Hawks came to town Sunday night owners of a 24-46 record, 22 games below .500 and squarely headed for the lottery.

A “tanking” opponent such as the Hawks should have been a team the Magic felt confident about rolling over rather easily. But I can promise you that Steve Clifford, his staff, and his players, were ultra-focused on their task at hand yesterday. And not just because Orlando has dropped similar “winnable” games against Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and Memphis since the All-Star break.

No, the focus heading into Sunday (especially on the defensive-side) was stemming from the fact that since the All-Star break, the Hawks have actually been playing really well. Well, their record may not reflect that, but they certainly have been scoring a lot of points. The Hawks, who rank 2nd in the NBA in “pace”, entered play Sunday against the Magic averaging 123.0 points per game in their 12 games since the All-Star break (5-7).

The Hawks rank 3rd in the NBA in both three-point attempts and three-point makes. Coach Clifford talked before the game about the importance of finding Atlanta’s perimeter players and matching-up.

“It starts in two places,” Clifford said during his pregame conference. “One - their second in pace, they get some of it (three’s) in transition. Dedmon gets trailer three’s when you don’t get back and don’t match-up. And then (two) - their penetration game. It’s very pick-and-roll and dribble-hand-off oriented. I would say Young is where it starts, but they’re ‘five out’.”

Well, the Magic answered the bell (and then some) defensively Sunday night, holding the Hawks to 91 points - Atlanta’s lowest offensive output since February 14th.

The Magic limited Atlanta’s perimeter attack, holding the Hawks to just 23% shooting from the outside (8-35 on 3PTA’s). Atlanta, who was playing their second game on the road in consecutive days, failed to score 25 points or more in each of the game’s final three quarters Sunday.

“I felt we had good intensity,” Clifford said after the game about his team’s defensive performance. “And even though it was two days in a row for them, if you look at the offensive numbers they’ve been putting up, I mean (I think) our defense was very good - which at this time of the year is obviously critical.”

“Their (Atlanta) last three or four games, they scored like 130 (points per game) against some good defensive teams,” D.J. Augustin told me after the game. “We just had to be ready from the get go. Come in, play hard, find them in transition - and be up on them.”

Orlando’s All-Star center Nikola Vucevic was incredible again Sunday against the Hawks, leading the way with 27 points and 20 rebounds. But it was Orlando’s team defense that had Vucevic excited after last night’s game.

“They (Atlanta) do a good job spreading the floor, driving and kicking,” Vucevic said in front of his locker. “They make it tough for our defense, but I thought tonight we did great. You know, they’re a team that has been averaging over 120 (points). We held them to 91, that’s pretty good.”

Vucevic was at the center of everything Sunday night, but the Magic also got solid contributions from two unlikely sources. Reserve wing Wes Iwundu scored a career high 14 points off the bench against the Hawks, and recently acquired point guard Michael Carter-Williams played 15 minutes off the bench for the Magic in his debut with the organization.

Iwundu, a guy that always brings it on the defensive end for the Magic (finished the game with 7 rebounds and 2 blocked shots), saw opportunities open up for him Sunday to contribute a little more on the offensive end (with guys like Fournier, Ross, and Isaac struggling).

“I just let the game come to me,” Iwundu said when asked whether the team needed him to score a little bit more Sunday night. “I got a career high tonight, that’s good, but at the end of the day - the most important thing is getting a win. My job is to go out there and do everything I can to help us win.”

It was a bit surprising to some that Carter-Williams assumed Orlando’s back-up point guard role right away, surpassing Jerian Grant in Clifford’s rotation in his first game with the team. Clifford is a huge fan of what Carter-Williams can bring the team on the defensive end of the floor, having familiarity with the veteran guard from their days together in Charlotte. Clifford thinks Carter-Williams will help Orlando’s second unit by creating turnovers, defending (on-ball and pick-and-roll), and by bringing energy (and creating more pace).

“I thought his defense on both (Jaylen) Adams and then also for the time of the game that he was in there against Trae Young, he’s very good,” Clifford said of Carter-Williams after the game. “I don’t know if you guys remember the one play in the first half, it’s a high pick-and-roll and he has a way that’s not easy to do, where he can kind of maneuver his body and not get picked. Not a lot of people can do that, but that’s what the elite defenders do.”

“What I really like is his motor,” Evan Fournier added about Carter-Williams, who scored 5 points (0-3 FGA’s, 5-8 FTA’s) and grabbed 4 rebounds in his Orlando debut. “He’s very active. He really wants to compete and (he) plays hard. He brings energy and he’s obviously a very good defender. We’re going to need that.”

It remains to be seen if Carter-Williams is the team’s permanent backup point guard or not. But carving out a role for the veteran guard, over a guy in Jerian Grant who could potentially provide the team with slightly more shooting, solidifies the message that Coach Clifford has been preaching to his team all season. “We know how we have to win”.

To string together some wins these last 10-12 games and sneak into the playoffs, the Magic must be consistently good on the defensive end - night-in and night-out.

“At the end of the year, there are big games,” Vucevic said Sunday night. “A lot of times, it’s your defense (that) will win you games.”

It was Orlando’s defense that helped them win Sunday night. Let’s see if their effort, intensity, attention to detail, and overall defensive success is something they can sustain over the next few weeks and beyond.