When the Magic and Bobcats met in the Playoffs two years ago, defense was the calling card for both teams. Then the top two teams in the league by defensive efficiency the NBA was treated to a four-game series of some hard-nosed defense.
Charlotte has completely remade its roster since then and some of that defensive identity has disappeared, especially when Gerald Wallace was traded.
Orlando? The defense is still strong. But as the Magic build their identity for this season, and the offense continues to have some maddening stretches of inconsistency, defense is where the hear of the Magic will have to lie.
For the second straight night, Orlando built a large lead but never ran away against a clearly inferior opponent. For the second straight night, that really did not seem to matter as Orlando built that lead and relied on the defense to keep it there as the shots refused to fall and the ball became stagnant. Against Houston, New Jersey and Charlotte, Orlando got away with it. Whether it can make that formula work -- or, better yet, improve upon it -- against teams like Oklahoma State is yet to be determined.
The Magic's defense looked strong once again though. No team has scored 100 points on Orlando yet this season. And it left Stan Van Gundy in a pretty good mood, calling the Magic's 100-79 win over the Bobcats in Charlotte on Friday the "best one yet."
Orlando has continued to show improvement in each game as the team has won three straight games after that loss to Oklahoma City on Christmas Day to open the season. Tonight was another defensive showcase.
According to my rough calculation, the Magic had a sterling 86.9 defensive rating. Giving up 79 points is plenty as far as numbers go to show how well Orlando played defense.
It was not simply the Bobcats missing shots -- they were 36.1 percent from the floor -- it was Dwight Howard blocking four shots and being the deterrent that he is -- he changed the trajectory of countless other shots too and you could tell his presence spooked some of Charlotte's players.
It was simply the Magic putting the Bobcats on the defensive offensively thanks to Howard and his work. Howard scored 20 points, but impressively added another 24 rebounds after a 24-rebound performance Thursday against the Nets. Most encouragingly, Charlotte got to the line only 18 times and rarely ventured into the paint. Even with 12 offensive rebounds, the Bobcats never became a factor and never could cut much into Orlando's lead.
The Magic had control of the game early and never trailed in this one. The lead throughout the second half stood at more than 10 for most of the way. An early Charlotte run brought it to nine, but it was quickly brought back out to 15. That was the kind of game Orlando was playing. Good enough to be comfortably ahead, but probably should be up more.
Four games into the season, we are discovering who this team is. Defense is going to have to be its calling card, because the offense is still inconsistent.
The Magic shot 44 percent from the floor and missed another 10 free throws, including Howard going 6 for 14. Points were sometimes difficult to come by.
Ball movement, as always was key. When the Magic got the ball moving, they were extremely difficult to cover. Ryan Anderson had another big scoring night with a team-high 23 points on 8-for-18 shooting and five 3-pointers. Anderson is not one to create his own shot very often, so his big game means the Magic were getting the ball moving.
That is further evidenced by the 23 assists the team had on 37 field goals.
When that ball is not moving and Dwight Howard is not making field goals -- he was 7 for 16 from the floor -- the offense can be downright nasty and difficult to watch. It makes ball movement and dribble penetration that much more important.
The Magic still have a ways to go offensively. But right now the defense is making those errors seem inconsequential. The opponent has a part to do with that too.
This was a great effort. Orlando played well. The team did not play poorly by any stretch of the imagination. But much like Thursday night, you just waited for the Magic to run and hide from their opponent. The Magic did not really do that until the fourth quarter.
For now, at least, the defense is as reliable and as tough as ever to crack.