The Orlando Magic’s defense took a step back during their losing streak, but it looks like it’s starting to turn things around.
They did just enough to end their losing streak at nine games Wednesday.
The Magic (6-20) got punched in the mouth early by the Los Angeles Clippers offense (14-12), but got the stops they need to pull out a 116-111 win overtime win at Amway Center to give Orlando its first victory since Nov. 18 over the Chicago Bulls.
The Magic fell behind 21-6 midway through the first quarter and 32-14 at the end of the first but held the Clippers to 67 points in the final three quarters of regulation to force overtime with the game tied at 99.
From there, they got the stops they needed, including forcing Kawhi Leonard into a missed pull-up 2 with the Clippers leading with 16.9 seconds remaining. Paolo Banchero drew a shooting foul two seconds later, making both free throws to give the Magic a 112-111 advantage.
The Magic forced a five-second violation on the Clippers’ ensuing possession and a bad pass that went out of bounds on their next, helping seal the win.
Banchero (game-high 23 points on 5-of-13 shooting and 13 of 14 on free throws) made 6 free throws in the final five seconds of overtime to give the Magic the win.
Moe Wagner had 20 points (7-of-13 shooting), 13 rebounds (4 offensive) and 3 assists while Bol Bol added 20 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists.
Franz Wagner had 15 points, including 9 in the fourth to give the Magic their first lead at 81-79. Cole Anthony contributed 13 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds.
The Magic’s 119.1 defensive rating (28th) — points allowed per 100 possessions — in the previous nine games entering Wednesday’s home matchup vs. the Los Angeles Clippers after being 24th (113.2) in the first 16 games quantifies the slippage.
The regression with defensive rebounding, especially with their top rebounder in Wendell Carter Jr. sidelined for the last 2½ weeks because of strained right plantar fascia, has been evident.
It’s led to the Magic going from one of the best teams at preventing second-chance points (12.7 for seventh in the first 16 games) to one of the worst at 15.4 points for 23rd during the slide.
But even that has improved over the last two games, including Monday’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Another issue has been protecting the paint, especially outside the restricted area — something the Magic are ultimately OK with as long as they continue to protect the rim.
The Magic remain one of the better teams at limiting opponents’ non-restricted area paint-scoring opportunities (14.1 field goal attempts for 4th before the losing streak vs. 12.1 for 2nd during the slide).
Their problem has been teams scoring more efficiently on these opportunities, allowing 51.4% shooting on these shots for 29th over the last nine games compared to 36.9% for 3rd earlier in the season.
The Magic have also allowed more efficient mid-range scoring, with opponents shooting 54.7% on these shots (28th) during the losing streak compared to 44.9% earlier in the season. Orlando doesn’t allow a lot of midrange shots compared to the rest of the league. but there’s been a slight uptick (8.6 for 3rd before the losing streak compared to 9.6 for 15th during the slide).
A lot of the success in the midrange can be attributed to playing better teams who have tough shotmakers: Los Angeles’ Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Toronto’s Pascal Siakim, Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Atlanta’s Trae Young and Dejounte Murray and Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell.
“You talk about the KDs of the world, the Donovan Mitchells of the world, the guys that hit tough shots — that’s what they’re capable of doing,” Mosley said. “Sometimes in those games, you can play with perfect defensive scheme, and those guys, that’s what they do. They make tough shots.”
With Carter — their best switching big man — sidelined, the Magic have been having their bigs play in drops or playing more aggressively (at the level of the screen and drop, high hedge or trap) when defending on-ball screens.
These coverages open up gaps — when in a drop, it’s the floater, especially if the defender being screened doesn’t stay attached to the ballhandler. With a high hedge or trap, there’s an open offensive player.
They miss Gary Harris (strained right hamstring) Chuma Okeke (left knee soreness) and Jalen Suggs (right ankle soreness), three of the team’s better perimeter defenders, in these areas. They all sat out Wednesday, along with Jonathan Isaac (left knee recovery).
“Sticking to the gameplan and understanding teams are going to make those shots at times,” coach Jamahl Mosley said pregame, “but we have to be confident in what we do and that we’re not giving up layups and fouling.”
Ultimately, those kinds of looks — off-the-dribble or contested midrange shots — are the ones the Magic prefer to allow. This is why they aren’t too worried. They want to prevent attempts at the rim or feet-set, catch-and-shoot 3s.
You can’t take away everything. And eventually, those tougher shots won’t go in at the rate they have the last couple of weeks.
They didn’t for the Clippers Wednesday, helping the Magic pick up the win.
“Numbers-wise, those shots are the shots you’re willing to give up,” coach Jamahl Mosley said. “You don’t want teams to shoot feet-set 3s consistently. You don’t want them living at the rim. Our ability to protect the paint and not give straight-line layups as well as fouling when they do get to the rim — that’s our area of focus. The floaters and the tough 2s, you have guys who can make those. Percentage-wise, those aren’t the shots that aren’t supposed to beat you.”
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Khobi Price at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @khobi_price.