Where’s The D?

Having a poor performance here and there certainly isn’t out of the ordinary for any NBA team, which is why the Orlando Magic don’t panic and most of their players usually offer the same type of response after subpar performances – “it happens.”

“You just have those types of games,” Chris Duhon explained. “You play 82 games and you’re not always going to shoot the ball great.”

“We just have to learn from stuff like this,” Dwight Howard said. “Sometimes we don’t have our best game but that happens. We’ve got a long season and we’ve got to stay positive. Everybody has to stay positive – Magic fans, Magic staff, whoever. We’re not going to have our best game every night; we just have to keep moving forward.”

Duhon, Howard, and their teammates are right – as long you can learn from your mistakes and correct them.

Lately, that hasn’t happened.

Staying positive is easy to talk about but with the losses beginning to pile up, Howard has grown increasingly frustrated with the inconsistencies of his teammates.

“We just can’t play great against a great team and mediocre against a mediocre team, so that’s our next step,” Howard explained.

However, the Magic haven’t had to worry about playing up and down to their opponents because since their blowout victory over the Bulls in Chicago, they haven’t played particularly well against anybody and haven’t played anything close to what they’d call a “complete game.”

There are several reasons for Orlando’s recent slide and although their biggest problems appear to be on the offensive end, the team’s defense has not played nearly as well lately as it did earlier in the season.

During the 2009-10 regular season, the Magic finished ranked third in the league in defensive efficiency. In fact, under Head Coach Stan Van Gundy, they have never finished worse than sixth (which happened during Van Gundy’s first season) and finished first during the 2008-09 season when they rode their defense all the way to the NBA Finals.

Early in the season, the Magic looked like the same old great, defensive team. Lately, they haven’t looked quite as good.

Sure, the Magic have always allowed great individual players like Carmelo Anthony, who had 35 points during Denver’s 111-94 victory over the Magic Tuesday night but the breakdowns on defense seem to be coming more often than ever recently.

Yes, the Magic are still one of the league’s elite defenses, ranking fourth in the league in efficiency (103.8) and they have had bigger problems on the offensive end where they rank just 13th in offensive efficiency  (they ranked fourth last year) but there is still a lot of work to do on the defensive end.

When the Magic were defeated by the Denver Nuggets Thursday night, it was the perfect way to sum up Orlando’s terrible west coast road trip. Denver posted an efficiency of 118.1, an effective field goal percentage of 60.6% and hit 11 of their 26 3-point attempts, in their 111-94 victory.

During that game, the Magic trailed by six at the half, after allowing Denver to light them up for 61 first half points, yet were able to cut the deficit to just a point, by turning up the heat on defense and outscoring Denver 23-18 in the third quarter before giving up 32 fourth quarter points.

When a team is that inconsistent, the problem could be as simple as focus and effort.

After Tuesday’s loss, Van Gundy blasted his team, citing their poor effort and desire on the defensive end as the reason for the loss.

Center Dwight Howard, who has won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year Award in each of the last two seasons, is also unhappy with the effort of his team.

“We’ve got to play defense, that’s it,” Howard told the Orlando Sentinel. “It’s got to be everybody. Our wings have to do a better job of not allowing their man to get to the rim every play.”

Howard had a point – the Nuggets were 16-of-25 on shots at the time and 6-of-8 on shots from between the rim and less than 10 feet away, with Carmelo Anthony going 10-of-12 on such shots.

It’s hard to find a solution right now. The Magic have turned to Brandon Bass as their starting Power Forward against bigger teams, sliding Rashard Lewis to Small Forward. Lewis simply isn’t quick enough to keep up with the majority of the wings in the league and has trouble with bigger, more physical players on defense. The Magic have been able to handle some of Lewis’ defensive shortcomings over the years because he’s been so good on offense but with Lewis struggling on the offensive end, it may be time to reduce his minutes.

We know Vince Carter will never be confused for a great defender and although J.J. Redick works very hard on that end, but he’s undersized and isn’t as athletic as a lot of the players he is forced to defend. Although they have been a little banged up and each missed Tuesday’s loss to Denver, both Mickael Pietrus and Quentin Richardson are supposed to be the team’s stoppers and they need to do a better job in the regard.

Despite being labeled differently over the last four seasons, the Magic have always relied on defense and it has been the catalyst for all of the success they have enjoyed during Stan Van Gundy’s tenure as head coach.

If the Magic are going to turn things around, it has to start there.

News & Notes

  • The Magic have now lost five of their last six games after previously winning six straight games.
  • The Magic will play four of their next five games at home but getting back on the right track won’t be easy. They’ll host the Philadelphia 76ers Saturday night, travel to Atlanta to play the Hawks Monday before returning to Orlando to host the Dallas Mavericks Tuesday the 21st. The San Antonio Spurs come to town on the 23rd and the stretch culminates with a visit from the Boston Celtics on Christmas Day in a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals.
  • Small Forwards Mickael Pietrus (sprained left knee) and Quentin Richardson (sore left elbow) both missed Tuesday’s loss to Denver but should play Saturday against Philadelphia.
  • The Magic are 56-26 all time against the 76ers, including a 31-9 mark at home.
  • J.J. Redick scored a career-high 29 points Tuesday night. His previous career-high came of 27 came against the Toronto Raptors last season.