The Orlando Magic defeated the Dallas Mavericks 111-106 Friday night, a game in which Steve Clifford saw his team knock-down 14 three-point attempts (14-29, 48%). Orlando scored 92 points through the game’s first three quarters, and built just enough of a cushion to hold off a late Dallas run.
A much-needed win kept the Magic right in the thick of the playoff conversation in the Eastern Conference. Defeating Dallas kept Orlando within one game of the eighth-seed in the East (currently the Miami Heat, 31-34), and tied with the Charlotte Hornets (also one-game back, 30-35).
However, the last thing the Magic were doing after Friday night’s contest was reveling in their win. Steve Clifford set the post-game tone, first speaking with his guys, and then Orlando reporters. Clifford was adamant about the fact that his team’s defensive effort and attention was lacking.
“There (are) some nights you defend and impact the other team, and some nights you win because they just miss shots,” Coach Clifford said during his post-game conference after Friday night’s contest. “And they just missed shots in the first half. They (Dallas) got whatever they wanted this whole game. If we played that same team tomorrow, and played that same way, we (would) lose by 15.”
The Magic were able to open-up a double-digit lead in the first half over the Mavericks, mostly do to the fact that Orlando’s shots were falling - and shots for Dallas were not. Dallas missed 16 of their 24 field goal attempts in the first quarter. Orlando led by 15 points at halftime, and despite a Dallas push in the third quarter, the Magic pushed their lead to 19 points heading into the fourth quarter.
However, the Magic were outscored and outplayed in the game’s final period (33-19).
“We were not interested in defense, especially when we got ahead, and that is not how we have to play.” Clifford added. “That’s one of the more disappointing (games), in terms of approach and intensity. We got outplayed, we just made more shots than they did.”
Clifford told reporters that he spoke with his players immediately after the game about their lack of defensive intensity, attention, and execution. Orlando’s head coach told his players that “they (his team) made 14 three’s, and that’s about it.”
“We had the offense going tonight, so that helped us out a little bit, but we’ve still got to tighten up the defense. You’ve always got to be cognizant of being a defensive-minded team first,” Terrence Ross said when asked about Orlando’s offensive output Friday night. “A lot of nights we are (really good on offense), but you still need to play defense - it doesn’t matter.”
“You definitely want a coach that’s going to hold you accountable and tell you like it is,” Nikola Vucevic said when asked about Clifford’s assessment of the team’s defensive effort Friday night. “We as players, we knew we didn’t play a great game. Obviously we did get the win, which was the most important thing. But we have to do better.”
Since the beginning of the season, Coach Clifford has stressed that his team has a certain way they can win, and that all starts with his team’s defensive identity. That identity was lacking for long stretches Friday night. The Mavericks scored a combined 87 points in quarters 2-4. An ice-cold opening to the game by Dallas is where Orlando gained an advantage in the contest.
“The mental preparation, the focus, the attention to detail. We had good stretches (Friday night) where we would get stops, but then it would just go away. We have to be more consistent with it, make sure we’re focused (on the things we go over),” Vucevic said when asked about his team getting back to a more consistent defensive mentality. “Obviously you’re not going to hold them (Dallas) to zero points, but try to limit them as much as you can and make it harder for them. Tonight, we gave up some of the stuff we talked about, and in big games - that can cost you a lot.”
“That’s what we do when we’re good, we play good defense,” Evan Fournier added after the game on his way out of the locker room. “It’s not easy to do, it’s definitely a commitment - that’s what its going to take for us to take that next step.”
There are two important takeaways from Friday night’s tilt. The Magic found a way to get a win, which is the most important thing. Winning in the NBA is never easy, as the Magic have gathered since the All-Star Break, dropping games in New York and Cleveland.
But to continue to win games down the stretch, especially those contests against teams that the Magic should beat, it will require more defensive attention and intensity on Orlando’s part.
“I’m just happy we got the win,” Aaron Gordon added. “We’re going to come back together tomorrow (Saturday) and watch the game, see what he’s seen. He (Clifford) always has a different perspective when he watches film. We’ll come back in and get better from it, and focus on Memphis.”
The Memphis Grizzlies are currently ranked 29th in the NBA in Offensive Rating, and 30th in pace. Historically, it’s been a daunting task for the Magic to go into Memphis and come away with a win.
If they can get it done on Sunday, it’s going to be because of their defense. You can’t rely on shooting nearly 50% on “three’s” every night.
“We have to have a defensive mentality,” Clifford told reporters as he closed out his post-game conference. “What I saw (Friday) was, when the ball started going through the basket, we stopped moving the way we needed to. We thought we were going to win the game, and we played no defense - that’s what I saw.”