Magic Showing Tremendous Improvement on Defense

by John Denton

ORLANDO – The raw data certainly shows that the Orlando Magic’s long-armed, ball-hawking and shot-swatting defense has made major improvements as the NBA season has progressed, but rookie center Mo Bamba prefers to use a different metric to gauge how his team is making life miserable for foes.

``They’re out there thinking twice now and wondering, `Can I get this layup or not?’’’ said Bamba, who certainly made the Utah Jazz’s offense think twice on Saturday as he swatted four shots and altered a few more.

Orlando’s towering size, expansive wingspan, positional versatility and aggressiveness were on display last week in Mexico City as it won gritty games against the Chicago Bulls and Jazz. Against the Bulls, the Magic swatted six shots, swiped eight steals and surrendered just 91 points. On Saturday, Orlando limited the Jazz to 31.5 percent shooting and surrendered just 34 paint points – 15 fewer than Utah’s season average – while blocking 10 shots and grabbing seven more steals.

Most importantly, the defense held firm throughout, allowing Orlando’s sputtering offense to get going late so the team could pull out a couple of key wins.

``I think it’s been like that a couple of times this year – more than just those last two games – where our defense helped us stick around while our offense was struggling,’’ said nearly 7-foot forward Jonathan Isaac, who swatted six shots in the last two games. ``Absolutely, I think we’ve done a great job defensively and there’s still so much room for improvement.’’

Bottom-five defensively for years, the Magic (14-15) have made major improvements on that end of the floor already this season. Like Isaac, head coach Steve Clifford thinks Orlando can still get much better defensively to the point where it is a top-10 unit at smothering foes on a nightly basis.

The raw defensive numbers for the Magic – who don’t play again until Wednesday when they host the San Antonio Spurs – are starting to bear that out 29 games into the season. To wit:

  • The Magic are one of just three NBA teams – playoff powerhouses Milwaukee and Boston are the others – that rank in the NBA’s top eight in points in the paint allowed, fast break points allowed, second-chance points allowed and points off turnovers. In those categories, Orlando is sixth, eighth, tied for eighth and seventh, respectively.

  • In other raw numbers, the Magic rank seventh in the NBA in points allowed per game (104) and 14th in field goal percentage allowed (45.7 percent). They are tied for eighth in blocked shots (5.6), tied for 17th in turnovers forced a game (14) and tied for 23rd in steals (7.0). Additionally, the Magic are tied for 10th in the NBA in fewest assists allowed per game (23.2), meaning they are racking up the deflections (40 against Chicago) and increasingly forcing teams to play out of one-on-one situations.

  • Per OrlandoMagic.com’s Josh Cohen, the Magic are the only team in the NBA with at least three players averaging at least one blocked shot per game (minimum five games played). Bamba, who has the longest wing span ever recorded in the NBA at 7 feet, 10 inches, leads the way at 1.39 blocks a game, while Isaac (1.30) and Nikola Vucevic (1.0) aren’t far behind. Aaron Gordon, Orlando’s best on-ball defender all season, could soon join that group as he is averaging 0.78 blocks per game.

  • Put it all together and the Magic’s defensive rating – 107.4 points allowed per 100 possessions – ranks 13th in the league. While that number is certainly improving, Clifford feels the Magic have the length, strength, skill and will for it to be much better by season’s end.

``No, not yet, but we’re getting closer,’’ Clifford said when asked if his team was living up to its defensive potential. ``Again, I think we’re going to have to be top-10 in defense and top-15 in offense. We dropped back to (No.) 26 in offense after being up to (No.) 22. It’s the same thing defensively as it has been all along – play the games, learn from the games and get better.’’

The Magic have gotten better defensively, in large part, because of the talent that they can throw at teams on that end of the floor. Orlando’s front office leadership of President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond wisely used the team’s last two first-round picks on Isaac (No. 6 in 2017) and Bamba (No. 6 in 2018) to fortify the team’s defense. The front office also made retaining Gordon a top priority last summer when he became a free agent because he and Isaac are poster boys for the NBA’s growing trend of stockpiling players who can switch onto any scorer on hold up defensively.

Said Isaac, referring to his team’s switching skills: ``It’s what all the GMs look for and we have a team-full of guys who can do it. It’s helped us defensively and we’ve just got to continue to do it throughout the year.’’

The rangy length of Isaac and Bamba, combined with Gordon’s toughness and Vucevic’s smarts and anticipation, have allowed the Magic to make life miserable for foes inside. As mentioned earlier, the Magic are sixth in the league in fewest points allowed in the paint per game (45.4) and they rank ninth in field goal percentage allowed on shots in the paint (38.4 percent, excluding the restricted area).

Clifford said, undoubtedly, the Magic’s ability to put several different big lineups on the floor has played a role in the team’s defensive success close to the rim. In addition to the shot-swatting abilities of Bamba and Isaac, Clifford was quick to credit Vucevic – an eighth-year pro predominantly known for his offensive skills in years past – for improving the team defensively.

``Oh no question, (the Magic’s length) has an impact,’’ Clifford said. ``We play lineups, where we use Jonathan (Isaac) with Aaron (Gordon at power forward) and (Vucevic) or Mo (Bamba), and we’re huge.

``Actually, when you look at it, the guy who has been our basket protector to this point has been (Vucevic),’’ Clifford raved. ``In terms of what we give up at the basket, he does it in a different way, but he’s been very quick to help (on drives). I would say he’s been more of a lane protector for us. People, I don’t think, are understanding how good he’s been defensively.’’

Bamba, too, has gotten better defensively as he’s become more adept at playing in the NBA. Early on, bigger veterans would try to outmuscle him down low and guards would attempt to get into his chest on drives to thwart his block attempts. A thinker as a defender and someone who rarely makes mistakes twice, Bamba has improved at playing defense earlier to establish better position on post-ups and he’s tried to attack more on block attempts.

Bamba’s highlight of the season came in Saturday’s second quarter when he swatted a Derrick Favors’ shot attempt off the glass so hard that it started a Magic fast break. Point guard D.J. Augustin corralled that ricocheting blocked shot out near the free throw line and fed it to guard Terrence Ross for a 3-pointer.

``It was a good block,’’ Bamba said somewhat sheepishly. ``That’s what I try to do. I don’t try to block shots out of bounds too often. When you can start breaks with it, that’s good.’’

The Magic’s defense was so impressive on Saturday and they had so many blocked shots that there was actually a debate as to which one was the best of the night – Bamba’s smack of Favors’ shot off the glass or Vucevic turning back a Donovan Mitchell drive late in the game? Without question, it was a good problem to have for a Magic unit that is increasingly swatting more shots and becoming more smothering defensively.

``I’d say Mo’s was my favorite,’’ said a chuckling Isaac, humbly ignoring his own three blocks. ``Probably Vooch’s block was more important, but I liked Mo’s better.’’

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