Losing your best defensive players would usually lead to a lapse on that end of the floor.
Friday night was anything but that for the Orlando Magic, as they tortured the Miami Heat seemingly from the start of the game, holding the leagues second best three-point shooting team to just one three-pointer in the opening quarter.
From there, the Magic continued to hound the Heat on seemingly every possession, forcing tough shots, running players off their spots, and forcing countless turnovers. The fourth quarter was the culmination of an overall impressive performance on that end of the floor, holding the Heat to just six points in the final quarter, one more than their franchise-low of five against the Boston Celtics in 2016. The six points also broke the previous record of seven in the fourth quarter, which also came against the Magic back in 2000.
The six points also tied the fewest the Magic have ever given up in a quarter as well, something they’d done three times previously.
“I thought we played, start to finish, a really good game,” said Steve Clifford. “Thy are good at creating fouls, so the fouls in the third quarter obviously was out biggest problem. I thought our defense was good. I thought our purpose was good. Obviously that’s a good win against a really good team.”
The Magic were active all night, forcing 18 Miami turnovers, leading to 24 Magic points, and chased the likes of Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro off their spots all night. When they were seemingly out of position, they rallied and made the correct rotations, forcing the Heat into contest drives into a clogged paint.
Orlando got a big lift on the night from the return of Aaron Gordon to the lineup after missing two games with a sore achillies. Gordon took on the tough challenge of guarding All-Star Jimmy Butler, and by-and-large did a good job on him.
“Aaron definitely gave us a physicality,” said Clifford. “The other thing is, again, he has the ability to defend primary scorers and make it hard on them, which is hard to do.”
It wasn’t just Gordon who made a difference.
Markelle Fultz jumped in passing lanes and used his length to disrupt the Heat’s ball movement en-route to a career-high six steals. Mo Bamba pulled down 11 rebounds, and challenged shots around the basket, making it hard for the Heat to be successful with their dribble penetration.
Kehm Birch, who coaches and players equally raved about after the game, added a physicality that the Magic needed against a big front line in Myers Leonard and Bam Adebayo.
Everything coupled together led to one of the best defensive performances of the season, and one of their most impressive victories thus far.
Offensively, they knocked down three’s left-and-right, led by Terrence Ross’ six triples off the bench. Ross, who finished with a game-high 25 points, spearheaded the Magic’s offense all night, and whenever they needed a basket, he came up big.
They also showed signs of resiliency, answering the Heat every time they would make a run and cut their lead down to a possession or two.
“We knew they were never just going to go away,” said Nikola Vucevic, who finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. “We built a little lead, and just stick with it. In the third, we made a run to get up 17, 18 and they made two three’s and that’s just part of the game. When you play a good team like they are, you have to expect that from them; we just have to be able to respond again.
“We did that all night. I thought we did a very good job with it. Sometimes that was an issue for us, kind of not being able to resist a run, and just keep playing. Tonight we did a great job, and you have to be able to do that.”
Without Jonathan Isaac for likely the remainder of the season, the Magic are going to have to put together more total team efforts like Friday night, especially on the defensive end. If they’re able to do that, then they could find themselves still hanging around the playoff picture come March and April.