It was shortly after the All-Star break, and the Magic had just become a top-10 defensive team. Steve Clifford wasn’t satisfied.
It simply wasn’t good enough for a team like Orlando, which struggles to outshoot teams on a nightly basis.
“If you look at our best stretches of the season, we were an elite defensive team,’’ Clifford told reporters earlier this month. “So, if you look at this stretch of games since we came back, we’re (ninth) in defense. I told them yesterday, ‘That probably won’t be good enough.’ We’re going to have to be top-three or top-four.’’
The Magic aren’t quite there yet, but they are damn close...
To get to the top-five, the Magic boasted one of the league’s best defenses since January 31. In February the Magic posted a league-best defensive rating of 100.0 points per 100 possessions. In March, they are third best with a rating of 104.6.
Those numbers have lifted the Magic into a tie for fifth overall with the Celtics. They are just one point behind the Thunder for fourth, the exact spot Clifford suggested the Magic needed to be in order to become a playoff team.
As it turns, he was pretty spot on in his defensive benchmark. With their 104-99 win over the Heat in a game with enormous playoff implications, the Magic won their sixth straight and moved into the eighth and final spot in the East. During that six game winning streak, the Magic has held five of six opponents under 100 points for a league-best defensive rating of 98.2 points during that stretch.
Josh Cohen of OrlandoMagic.com recently took a look at the before-and-after statistics for the Magic defense, with the Magic ranking first in the league in a multitude of categories since January 31st. That includes opponent field goal percentage, opponent three-point percentage, opponent points off turnovers, opponents second chance points and opponent fastbreak points, all of which illustrate the strides the Magic have made on the defensive end.
The Magic defense has carried the team to a 17-7 record since January 31st. And it very well may lead them into the postseason for the first time since 2012.
“If you look at the makeup of our team and we’re going to finish strong, we have to do it defensively,” Clifford had told reporters in late-February. “We’re starting to play better defensively. We’re not going to be a top-five offensive team – we don’t have that kind of roster – but we can be a top-five defensive team. If we want to win, that’s how we have to do it.’’