Magic Must Get Back to Focusing on Playing Elite Defense

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By John Denton
Dec. 27, 2015

ORLANDO – Like an annoying drip, drip, drip, there’s been some steady leakage in the Orlando Magic’s defense of late and – as feared – the floodgates opened up Saturday in an ugly loss to the Miami Heat.

Upon taking the job in late May, head coach Scott Skiles told the Magic the truest statistical indicator of playoff teams is field goal percentage allowed. And he backed up his claims with this stat: Over the last 20 years, 94 of the 100 teams to finish in the top five in that category went on to make the playoffs.

The Magic held that lofty, top-five distinction as recently as Dec. 19 when they sat at No. 4 in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed. At that point in the season – 26 games in – they were holding teams to 42.8 percent shooting, which wasn’t far off what the Chicago Bulls were doing to lead the NBA at 41.3 percent at the time.

Since then, however, Orlando has allowed four consecutive foes to shoot 49 percent or better – capped by the hated Heat carving up the Magic in the second half of a 108-101 loss. Miami shot 62.2 percent in the second half and 72.2 percent shooting in the fourth quarter to outscore the Magic 64-45 over the final 24 minutes. How bad was it? Orlando’s defensive rating on Saturday (124.0 points per 100 possessions) was actually worse than the unsightly 111-76 loss to Cleveland on Dec. 11 (118.2 points per 100 possessions).

``(Saturday) night was a really, really tough one,’’ Magic guard Evan Fournier admitted following Sunday’s practice. ``You can feel the atmosphere … everybody is upset and nobody is really joking or smiling. That was a tough one.’’

Before hosting Anthony Davis and the surging New Orleans Pelicans (10-20) on Monday, the Magic (17-13) hit the video room for some analysis of their defensive slippage. Skiles has been warning for the past three weeks that the Magic were ``playing with fire’’ thinking that they could win games with their offensive efficiency instead of their defensive grit, and they were finally burned by the Heat on Saturday.

``We’ve just got to go back to the basics. You can say that about offense and defense too, but we’ve just got to go back to the basics and trusting each other again,’’ said Magic defensive ace Victor Oladipo. ``We’ve got to go back to being solid, not gambling and doing what we do best.’’

Skiles compared Saturday’s loss to the 103-101 defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 5 – a game where the coach traces Orlando’s defensive decline to. Like on Saturday, Orlando led most of the game before breaking down on both ends of the floor. The Magic were outscored 29-22 by the Clippers in the fourth quarter in early December and 39-25 by the Heat over the final 12 minutes on Saturday.

Skiles has told him team that he’s not just getting them ready to win regular-season games in December; he also wants them to have the toughness, discipline and habits to be able to gut out a tough Game 7 on the road in the playoffs down the line.

In those types of high-leverage games, Skiles said, points are difficult to come by and the team that can depend on its defense usually wins. That’s why he refuses to accept substandard performance from the Magic even when facing a foe with superstars such as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

``The reality is that if we want to be a legitimate team we can’t cough up some of the games that we’ve coughed up,’’ Skiles said bluntly. ``We’ve put ourselves in position to win a game, but we’ve coughed too many of them up. However, there have been other games that hung in the balance where we made enough plays and won them as well.’’

Orlando has been able to weather some of its defensive issues of late because its offense has been performing at a high level. Riding the stellar play of late from Nikola Vucevic, clutch shot-making of Fournier and a deep and dynamic bench, Orlando has the highest offensive rating in the NBA over the last five games. The ease with which Orlando was able to score points helped them beat New York and Houston. But against elite East teams, such as Atlanta and Miami, points were tougher to come by and the Magic’s defensive shortcomings were exposed.

``You hope not. Could it? Of course, because it’s human nature, but if that is happening it’s a bad sign because it means we don’t fully understand how important the (defensive) end is,’’ Skiles said of his team possibly letting its guard down defensively because of its stellar offensive execution of late. ``Hopefully (Saturday) night is a learning situation for us.’’

Magic power forward Jason Smith, who had the best individual defensive rating in NBA last week before some recent struggles, feels the Magic have allowed their improved offense to mask the importance of getting stops.

``I think it’s more of a focus thing. We have good offensive spurts and then we tend to get lackadaisical,’’ Smith said. ``Teams like (Miami) are among the top seeds in the East right now and we can’t have these lapses and have leads slip through our fingers. We have to treat every night like it’s a playoff game. Teams are realizing we are a good team and what we do well and they’re taking it away from us. We have to realize what they do well and take it away from them.’’

Skiles has built his coaching career on defensive success, leading the Suns, Bulls and Bucks to the top of the NBA in several pertinent defensive statistics through the years. He seemed to have Orlando on track to do the exact same thing even though it was one of the NBA’s worst defensive teams in the league last season. The Magic ranked 28th in the 30-team NBA last season in field goal percentage allowed (46.3 percent).

What the Magic are trying to do – go from bottom five in the NBA in defense to top five in the league – is quite uncommon.

If the Magic can get back into the top five of field goal percentage allowed it will put them in some elite company as far as improvement from one season to the next. In the past 23 seasons, only four NBA teams have gone from the bottom five to the top five in the league from one season to the next in field goal percentage allowed. They are: Sacramento Kings (1993-94 - 1994-95) from 26th to second; San Antonio Spurs (1996-97 - 1997-98) from 26th to first; Boston Celtics (2000-01 - 2001-02) 26th to third; and Houston Rockets (2001-02 - 2002-03) from 29th to 5th.

Players such as Oladipo likes to hear Skiles talking about learning strong defensive habits for playoff battles down the line because it shows the coach’s belief in the team. Oladipo, who Skiles said has played ``all-league defense’’ this season, said Orlando has proven how stout it can be defensively and it has to get back to that point starting Monday night. If it can do that, Oladipo said, the Magic have the potential to make major strides this season.

``We’ve got to buy in defensively and if we do that we’re going to be in a good position to be successful,’’ Oladipo said. ``But it starts with us getting back to being the best defensive team that we can be.

``When you coach is talking like that (about winning in the playoffs down the line) that mentality wears off on the team and the players,’’ the standout guard continued. ``We feel like we’re a playoff team and we’re capable of being in a playoff series, so we’ve got to feel that (defensive) void every night and play as hard as we can.’’

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