ORLANDO - Whenever an opposing coach or player is asked to give their thoughts of the Orlando Magic, and what they are seeing from them this season, almost always the first thing mentioned is something related to their size and length.
One example of this came Sunday night after the Magic beat the Toronto Raptors for a second straight game.
“They’re long. Not only are they long, they are physical,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “They got a couple super physical guys, too, at the bigs that really do a good job of putting their body on you and knocking you off balanced when you are trying to take shots.”
That length obviously sticks out when you have four 6-foot-10-or-taller players in the starting lineup, which the Magic have had for most of the season thus far. What should derive from that – just based on simple basketball logic – is paint protection. It’s just harder for opponents to shoot over length, which is why length is a heavily concentrated characteristic when drafting, signing, and trading.
These last four games, the Magic made it quite difficult for opponents to score inside. None of the Magic’s opponents during this time scored more than 40 points in the paint and only the Memphis Grizzlies held opponents to fewer points in the paint during this stretch.
“Our level of understanding where we need to be in certain coverages,” Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley said of what’s gone into protecting the paint at a high level lately. “Our pick-and-roll coverage – guys knowing when they are coming off the ball, how much they are helping in versus getting out to those 3-point shooters. But that’s our area of emphasis. We have to make sure we protect the paint first and then you can fly out and get out to shooters accordingly.”
The league’s best teams each year generally excel in this area. Last season, for example, three of the teams that ranked in the top five in opponent points in the paint reached the conference finals.
Granted the game has changed quite dramatically since then, but during the Dwight Howard era, the Magic were the league’s best at guarding the paint. They ranked No. 1 in this area for three straight seasons from 2008-09 through 2010-11. Howard was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year all three of those seasons.
All four of the seasons they had LeBron James in the early 2010s, the Miami Heat ranked near the top in opponent points in the paint as well.
The 2018-19 Raptors, 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers and 2020-21 Milwaukee Bucks – the champs each of those seasons – also ranked near the top in this category.
Missing a ton of guys throughout the early portion of this season because of injuries has made it difficult for the Magic to consistently secure the paint, however. For the season so far, they rank 18th in opponent points in the paint.
For the Magic to continue making strides this year and beyond, nonetheless, they’re going to have to do what they’ve done these last several games for longer stretches.
“Just a lot of effort. We hustled on every play,” Magic forward Franz Wagner said after his team’s most recent win over the Raptors. “Ran back after mistakes…Just our effort, our communication, (and) engagement.”