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Film Study: How the Magic find success on defense

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

Watch the Orlando Magic closely and you’ll understand why they rank in the top 10 in defensive efficiency.

They get back in transition, work hard to get around screens, bring help when needed, make the next rotation, protect the rim, avoid fouling, and gang rebound. The Magic are as fundamentally sound defensively as any team in the league, suffering few breakdowns over the course of 48 minutes.

And they’re consistent in more ways than one. In the middle of the standings, they’ve consistently struggled against the teams at the top and consistently taken care of business against the teams at the bottom. The Magic have the league’s biggest differential between their winning percentage in games against the 17 teams under .500 (25-9, .735) and their winning percentage in games against the 13 teams with winning records (5-26, .161).

Similarly, their fundamentally-sound defense hasn’t held up against the league’s best offenses. While the Magic have had the fifth best defense (allowing just 105.6 points per 100 possessions) against the team’s that currently rank 11-30 in offensive efficiency, they rank 21st defensively (allowing 114.0) against the top 10. The only teams with a bigger differential in that regard are the teams — Cleveland and Golden State — that finished with the league’s two worst records.

Biggest diff., DefRtg vs. top-10 & vs. bottom-20 offenses
vs. Top 10 vs. Others
Team GP DefRtg Rank GP DefRtg Rank Diff.
Cleveland 21 121.8 30 44 111.5 25 10.4
Golden State 23 118.8 28 42 109.1 16 9.7
Orlando 21 114.0 21 44 105.6 5 8.4
Indiana 19 113.1 17 46 105.5 4 7.6
Washington 20 120.2 29 44 112.7 28 7.6
League avg. 112.8 108.5 4.3
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions

Like most defenses these days, the Magic drop their bigs back in pick-and-roll coverage, hoping to prevent the most efficient shots on the floor. The result is only 29.8% of their opponents’ shots, the league’s fifth lowest opponent rate, coming in the restricted area. That number has been only a tick higher for the top 10 offenses (30.2%) than it’s been for the bottom 20 offenses (29.5%) against the Magic.

Preventing layups and dunks while also avoiding fouls is a good formula. The only other team that ranks in the top five in both opponent free throw rate and the (lowest) percentage of their opponents’ shots that have come in the restricted area is the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been the league’s best defensive team by a wide margin. Both teams also rank in the top five in defensive rebounding percentage.

The structure, the discipline, and the effort are there for the Magic. That will get you wins against the NBA’s lesser teams and make things more difficult for the best.

No Breaks

Good defense starts in transition. League-wide, effective field goal percentage is highest (60%) in the first six seconds of the shot clock. Prevent those shots and you’ve taken a big step toward getting a stop.

According to Synergy play-type tracking, only 13.6% of the Magic’s opponents’ possessions, the league’s lowest rate, have been in transition. They’ve been an average offensive rebounding team, but generally have just one guy crashing the glass and have great habits – quick reactions and persistent effort — in regard to getting back on defense.

Play 1. Markelle Fultz, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic are all under the basket when Jaylen Brown grabs the rebound. But Fultz races back to pick up the ball and Evan Fournier helps in the paint when Fultz can’t make Brown change direction. Gordon is there when Brown kicks out to Romeo Langford in the right corner and Fultz begins his “X out” out to Jayson Tatum before Langford has even swung the ball. Brown grabs the offensive board, but the Magic successfully defend two isolations and Gordon Hayward misses a pull-up mid-range jumper.

Number to know: The Magic have allowed a league-low 11.1 second-chance points per game.

Play 2. After Tatum steals the ball from Vucevic, Terrence Ross slows up the break a bit. But Tatum lofts a pass over both Ross and Fournier. Gary Clark meets Vincent Poirier in the paint and Carter-Williams races back to block Hayward from behind.

Number to know: The 1.09 points per possession the Magic have allowed on transition possessions rank 11th.

Play 3. Fultz misses a contested layup and Vucevic goes for the offensive rebound. But the Magic still have four guys back (including Fultz and Ross, who was in the far corner) before Eric Bledsoe begins his attack. Gordon stays in front of Bledsoe, holds him up, and the fifth guy (Vucevic) gets all the way back to block the shot.

Number to know: The Magic lineup of Fultz, Fournier, Ross, Gordon and Vucevic has allowed just 3.9 fast break points per 48 minutes, the fewest among 88 lineups that have played at least 100 minutes. The Magic also have two of the other five lineups that have played at least 100 minutes and allowed fewer than 9.0 fast break points per 48.

Play 4. All five Magic defenders get back and Carter-Williams stays in front of Donte DiVincenzo. Vucevic still brings help from the weak-side corner and Wes Iwundu rotates down to intercept DiVincenzo’s kick-out pass to Brook Lopez.

Number to know: The Magic are one of five teams that rank in the top 10 in three of the four factors on defense. They’re the only one of the five for which opponent turnover percentage (in which they rank 10th) isn’t the only exception.

Play 5. After a Carter-Williams miss, the Heat push and Duncan Robinson has the ball in the corner with just three seconds having expired on the shot clock. But James Ennis meets him there to prevent the quick 3-pointer.

Number to know: Only 13.6% of the Magic’s opponents’ shots, the league’s fourth lowest rate, have come in the first six seconds of the shot clock, according to Second Spectrum tracking.

Rotation, Rotation, Rotation

The Magic’s defensive effort doesn’t stop after they stop the break. In sending extra defenders to the paint to prevent layups, they can expose themselves on the perimeter. But they don’t leave shooters open for long and guys know that, if they leave their man or get beat off the dribble, a teammate will have their back.

Play 1. Carter-Williams applies pressure and goes over a Brown/Enes Kanter pick-and-roll. Brown engages Vucevic in his drop coverage, but Gordon sinks off the weak-side corner and intercepts Brown’s lob to Kanter.

Number to know: The Magic have forced just 13.5 turnovers per 100 possessions with Gordon on the floor, but 16.7 with him off the floor.

Play 2. When Hayward gets into the paint via a screen from Grant Williams, Vucevic slides over to stop the drive. And when Hayward kicks out to Williams in the corner, Fultz sells out to run Williams off the 3-point line. Both Vucevic and Gordon rotate down to stop Williams’ drive, Ross rotates over to Tatum, and both Gordon and Fultz scramble to the weak side. Hayward swings the ball back to an open Tatum, but Vucevic closes out and forces a tough, side-step 3-pointer.

Number to know: 14.5% of the Magic’s opponents’ shots have come in the last six seconds of the shot clock. That rate is just below the league average (14.6%).

Play 3. Iwundu and Fournier switch a Hayward cross-screen for Brown. Kanter goes the other way for a dribble-hand-off and Vucevic stops Tatum’s drive. Brown attacks Iwundu’s close-out, Vucevic helps to the strong-side block, and Fournier sinks down to box out Kanter.

Number to know: The Magic have two of the 10 lineups — Fultz, Fournier, Gordon and Vucevic with either Iwundu or Khem Birch — that have played 100 minutes or more and grabbed at least 80% of available defensive rebounds.

Play 4. A Hayward/Kanter pick-and-roll has Iwundu trailing, Vucevic stepping up to stop another drive, and Fultz sinking off the weak-side corner to tag Kanter’s roll. Fultz recovers to run Langford off the line on the kick-out. When he gets beat baseline, Iwundu leaves Hayward and takes the ball away from the rookie.

Number to know: 56.3% of Orlando opponent turnovers, the league’s third highest opponent rate, have been live-ball turnovers (Magic steals).

Play 5. One possession after giving up a Tatum 3-pointer on the same action, the Magic switch a Tatum back-screen for Brown on the right side. Brown comes back for the ball, backs Fournier down to the right block and is met by Carter-Williams (who leaves Tatum) on a spin baseline. Ross rotates down to Tatum in the left corner and Birch rotates out to Brad Wanamaker on the swing, forcing a mid-range pull-up.

Number to know: Carter-Williams’ 2.1 steals per 36 minutes rank eighth among 286 players that have played at least 750 minutes.

Trapping on the side

The Orlando defense is relatively aggressive in loading up to the strong side defensively. One unique thing they do is set traps along the sideline when there’s not a shooter in the strong-side corner. When the trap is set, they’ll bring extra defenders to the strong side, so that the only available pass (when they’re positioned the way they want to be) is over the top to the other side of the floor.

Play 1. Kristaps Porzingis gives the ball back to Luka Doncic and sets a screen for Doncic to get to the middle of the floor. Gordon goes under the screen and is ready to meet Doncic on the other side, so Doncic goes back the other way. Vucevic steps up to prevent the pull-up 3-pointer, Gordon trails to trap along the sideline, and Fultz leaves his man to prevent the escape-valve pass to Porzingis. By the time Dorian Finney-Smith catches Doncic’s skip pass in the left corner, the Magic are able to reset defensively. Seth Curry gets around Fultz, but misses a late-clock runner.

Number to know: 18% of the Magic’s opponents’ shots, the league’s fourth highest rate, have been non-restricted-area shots in the paint.

Play 2. After the Magic defend the Heat’s initial left-side action, Bam Adebayo gets the ball to Kendrick Nunn in the corner and follows to set a screen. Fultz “ices” that screen, forcing Nunn toward the baseline, and Vucevic meets him there to set the trap. Both Gordon and Ross immediately slide over to the strong side. Nunn steps through the trap, but Gordon intercepts his pass to Jimmy Butler.

Number to know: The Magic have seen the league’s third biggest jump in opponent turnover rate, from 13.1 per 100 possessions (21st) last season to 15.0 per 100 (10th) this season.

Play 3. After Fournier switches the initial “pistol” screen from Robinson, he ices the same Adebayo screen for Nunn in the previous play. Nunn again rejects the screen, Vucevic stops him on the baseline and Fournier trails to set the trap. Gordon, however, never commits to pick up Adebayo, who makes an easy feed to Butler under the basket.

Number to know: The Magic have seen the league’s second biggest jump in opponent effective field goal percentage, from 51.5% (10th) last season to 53.5% (18th) this season.

Play 4. Joakim Noah sets a screen for Kawhi Leonard along the right sideline, Vucevic steps up, and Gordon follows to set the trap in the corner. With Fournier, Ennis and D.J. Augustin sliding over to the strong side, Marcus Morris has an open lane to the basket. But Leonard’s pass is high, the Magic scramble back into position, and force a contested, late-clock 3-pointer from Leonard.

Number to know: The Magic have allowed just 99.1 points per 100 possessions with Augustin and Vucevic on the floor together. That’s the lowest on-court mark among 35 two-man Magic combinations that have played at least 300 minutes together.

Play 5. Noah sets the same, back-to-the-baseline screen for Reggie Jackson along the left sideline, Vucevic and Augustin set the trap, and Gordon leaves Leonard to pick up Noah on the strong side. But Jackson is able to get the ball back to Leonard for an open 3-pointer.

Number to know: The Magic have seen the league’s second biggest jump in opponent 3-point percentage, from 34.7% (10th) last season to 37.0% (24th) this season.

Good offense beats good defense

The Magic have done well in protecting the paint, but haven’t had as much success on the perimeter. While they rank 11th in opponent field goal percentage in the paint, they rank 26th in opponent effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint. They’re 29th in opponent mid-range field goal percentage (43.8%) and 24th in opponent 3-point percentage (37.0%). And that’s where the Magic have struggled against the league’s top 10 offenses, who have shot 45.8% from mid-range and 40.8% from beyond the arc against the Orlando defense.

While the Magic limit breakdowns, they can still be beat with talent, particularly good shooting from the perimeter. Sometimes, it’s simply a ball-handler stepping into an open jumper when his defender gets screened and the Orlando big sits back in the paint …

Jayson Tatum pull-up 3 vs. Orlando

Sometimes, it’s just good offense beating good defense …

Play 1. Fultz gets caught in a back-screen from Hayward (which Iwundu doesn’t switch), but Gordon helps out from the weak side. Fournier rotates down to the weak-side corner and Fultz Xs out to the wing. He stays in front of Brown on an isolation, but Brown hits the 14-foot jumper over the top.

Number to know: Overall, the league has shot 41.1% on pull-up 2-pointers. Against the Magic, the league has shot 44.1% on pull-up 2s.

Play 2. On a dribble-hand-off, Fournier tags the Kanter roll and anticipates Tatum’s kick-out to Brown. Vucevic provides help when Brown attacks Fournier’s close-out, but Brown hits a tightly-contested, step-back jumper.

Number to know: The Magic have ranked in the bottom five in opponent mid-range field goal percentage in each of Steve Clifford’s two seasons in Orlando. They ranked 27th (42.0%) last season.

Play 3. Gordon switches a Tatum/Williams pick-and-roll and defends Tatum’s isolation about as well as one could. Tatum still drains a step-back jumper from the top of the key.

Number to know: Only 5.5% of Orlando opponent possessions, the league’s sixth lowest rate, have been isolations, according to Synergy play-type tracking. The 0.94 points per possession they’ve allowed on isolations rank 23rd.

Play 4. The Magic build a wall when Giannis Antetokounmpo attacks down the left side of the floor, preventing the MVP from getting to the basket or to his spin move. Fournier recovers to prevent a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from Khris Middleton, and Iwundu picks up Middleton when he gets around the close-out. But one of the best mid-range shooters in the league still drains the jumper.

Number to know: Magic opponents have a ratio of 2.9 3-point attempts per mid-range shot, a mark that is right at the league average. That ratio is 2.7 for the bottom 20 offenses and 3.3 for the top 10 offenses against Orlando.

Play 5. Carter-Williams works hard to get around a Kelly Olynyk screen and prevent a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from Robinson, and then he keeps Robinson from getting the ball back. Augustin denies another hand-off attempt to Goran Dragic and forces Dragic to catch the ball 30 feet from the basket. When Augustin ices an Olynyk screen and Dragic goes the other way, Mo Bamba switches and stops the drive. Carter-Williams then provides just a sliver of space for Dragic to get the ball to Robinson, who drains the contested corner 3-pointer.

Number to know: The Magic rank 27th in opponent corner 3-point percentage, with their opponents having shot 41.6% from the corners.

Play 6. Vucevic and Gordon look to trap Butler when he uses an Adebayo screen along the right sideline. Fultz anticipates and picks off the “hammer” pass to Robinson in the left corner, but saves the ball right back to Butler. The Magic are able to reset defensively, but Dragic squeezes a reverse layup around Ross on the baseline.

Number to know: The Heat have had two of the five most efficient games (more than 124 points scored per 100 possessions) against the Magic this season.

An upgrade on the way

After missing the last 31 regular-season games and the Magic’s first two scrimmages at Walt Disney World, Jonathan Isaac will reportedly play in a scrimmage against Denver on Monday. Isaac isn’t the most consistent defender on the roster, but he certainly has the highest ceiling on that end of the floor, as his defensive highlights from a November game against the league’s No. 1 offense make clear.

Isaac finished with six blocks and four steals in that one-point loss in Dallas. The Magic allowed just 62 points on 65 defensive possessions (0.95 per) with him on the floor and 45 points on 36 defensive possessions (1.25 per) with him off the floor.

His season-long on-off numbers aren’t as dramatic, but he certainly makes the Magic a better defensive team. Eight different guys have played alongside the Magic’s four healthy starters. The Magic have allowed 105.3 points per 100 possessions in 240 minutes with Isaac as the fifth guy and 113.9 per 100 in 687 minutes with somebody else in that spot.

Isaac has totaled 128 steals (50) and blocks (78), and committed just 79 personal fouls. That ratio of 1.62 ranks second (behind Butler – 1.64) among 286 players that have played at least 750 minutes. His 4.0 deflections per 36 minutes rank 12th among those same 286 players.

The fit with Gordon (30.1% from 3-point range) and Isaac (33.0%) at the forward spots isn’t ideal on offense, especially when you have a point guard who shoots even worse. But all that size and length on the frontline is tough to score against inside. In 319 minutes with Gordon, Isaac and Vucevic all on the floor, less than 26% of opponent shots have come in the restricted area.

It could get ugly

Even before the league went on hiatus for four months, the Magic had a weird season. Before the All-Star break, they ranked 27th offensively and seventh defensively. And in the three weeks between the All-Star break and when everything stopped, they ranked first offensively and 26th defensively.

Given their personnel, the way they work defensively, and the sample size, there’s certainly more truth in the pre-break numbers. If the Magic remain where they are or move up, this would be the fifth top-10 defense that Clifford has had in his seven seasons as head coach with Charlotte and Orlando.

Only four of the Magic’s eight seeding games are against teams with winning records, and only one of the eight (Aug. 9 vs. Boston) is against a team that currently ranks in the top 10 offensively. Orlando should be favored to move up to the 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, which would likely get them a matchup with the defending champs in the first round.

The Magic have defended Toronto well. The 102.3 points per 100 possessions the Raptors have scored in the season series is their fourth worst mark against any opponent. Alas, in going 0-3 against the champs, the Magic have scored an anemic 92.0 per 100 (their worst mark against any opponent) themselves. They’ll play Toronto one more time before the postseason.

We don’t know what to expect going forward, but we can expect that the Magic, with the way they defend, won’t beat themselves. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be beaten.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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