Magic Among Leaders In a Very Important Defensive Category

by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - What’s the most important defensive stat in the NBA?

It might be opponent 3-point percentage, which has generally shown to separate the good teams from the bad teams the last several years.

In the last three seasons combined, only three teams – the 2017-18 Los Angeles Lakers, the 2018-19 Dallas Mavericks and the 2019-20 Brooklyn Nets – had losing records despite ranking in the top 10 in opponent 3-point percentage. Last year, all of the teams in the top 10 in this category, including the Nets, reached the playoffs.

At the moment, the Orlando Magic are thriving guarding the 3-point line. Opponents have combined to shoot 32.3 percent from beyond the arc through Orlando’s first eight games, which ranks third in the league behind the New York Knicks (29.8 percent) and Atlanta Hawks (30.0 percent).

Perhaps even more impressive is that Orlando’s opponents are averaging a league-low 10.1 made threes per game. On Wednesday, the Cleveland Cavaliers connected on just four of their 26 3-point attempts against the Magic. Only three teams – the Indiana Pacers, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz – are giving up fewer 3-point tries than Orlando.

One player that has done an exceptionally good job defending the arc has been Gary Clark, the Magic’s 6-foot-6, versatile forward who re-signed with Orlando after a strong showing at the Disney bubble to finish last season. Opponents, per advanced stats, have made just two of their 14 3-point attempts when the 26-year-old Clark has been the closest defender.

Something else very important is that the Magic are not allowing teams to take many 3-pointers from the corners, where NBA teams generally shoot the ball better from downtown. The Magic and Suns are tied for No. 1 in the league in fewest corner 3-point attempts allowed.

Even though the Magic are doing well statistically in these defensive 3-point areas, Head Coach Steve Clifford thinks improvement is still very much needed.

“To me, it’s been here and there, to be honest with you,” he said after Wednesday’s win. “Again tonight, we weren’t as good in the paint, where they are exceptional. The (Andre) Drummond, (JaVale) McGee thing is hard for any team to match up with. I thought we had some good periods tonight. The other night (Monday) we were great on those guys. I thought we had some breakdowns particularly in the second half, the fourth quarter, missed helps, extended, where the other night (we were better), and even against Oklahoma City our perimeter defense had been getting better. That’s the part to me that’s going to be a big key going forward. If we’re going to be good defensively, we’re going to have to get good perimeter (defense), containing the ball and our pick-and-roll defense.”

From both a roster configuration and team mindset standpoint, the Magic have what it takes to be an elite defensive team all year. Injuries are obviously going to make it more difficult, but so far, they’ve stuck to their core defensive principles and have played with good intensity and purpose on that end of the floor.

“I think that’s where we have the most potential,” said Mo Bamba, who made his season debut on Monday and has shown in his first two NBA seasons to be among the best rim protectors in the league. “We don’t have a guy who can go out there and score 30 every night, but we have a bunch of smart basketball players and a bunch of savvy defenders. And on top of that we have length. I think we can be really good defensively.”

With the schedule about to get much tougher and with so many of the team’s players currently injured or just getting back from injury, we will learn a lot about the Magic’s defensive capabilities over the next couple weeks.

Coming into the season, Clifford said he felt this team had what it takes to rank in the top 10 in defense. So far they have lived up to that expectation. The Magic currently have the fourth best defensive rating.

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