ATLANTA — You don’t have to look far to determine why the Orlando Magic have started their regular season with a surprising 3-3 record.
It’s the defense.
The Magic will enter their game Saturday night against the Atlanta Hawks ranked fourth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, limiting opponents to 94.4 points per 100 possessions. Orlando also ranks second in the league in field-goal percentage defense, holding teams to 39.1 percent shooting from the field.
“It’s really just an effort level, a mindset of doing your job over and over again,” Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said.
“It’s easy to relax and take a play off, but we’ve been encouraging our guys to hold each other accountable and they have been. When a rotation needs to be there, guys have been there. Overall, it’s been a very focused five men on the floor doing their job every possession.”
It’s too early to draw any definitive conclusions about the Magic’s defense based on statistics so early in a season. Including Saturday night’s game at Philips Arena, the team still has 76 games to play.
But the initial returns have been positive, especially given some of the Magic’s early competition. The Los Angeles Clippers, for example, rank first in the league in offensive efficiency, and the Magic held the Clippers’ vaunted offense to 90 points and 37.9 percent shooting.
Orlando has held its last four opponents — the New Orleans Pelicans, Brooklyn Nets, Clippers and Boston Celtics — to under 40.0 percent shooting.
On Friday night, the Celtics made just 35.8 percent of their shots, and their offensive statistics almost certainly would’ve been worse if an avalanche of Magic turnovers hadn’t led to 17 fastbreak points.
It was a game Orlando players felt they should’ve won, just like their 120-115 overtime defeat to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Oct. 30.
“I just think we have to take care of the ball a little bit better, especially the playmakers,” said one of those playmakers, Arron Afflalo.
“This team has been through a lot last year in understanding how valuable wins are. Outside of our opener, we’ve lost two games now that we felt we should have won. So, we are learning in the process.”
It’s no secret the Magic struggled on defense last season after Glen Davis suffered a dislocated shoulder in the team’s 25th game.
Until that point, Orlando was one of the better defensive teams in the league.
Everything crumbled without Davis, their best low-post defender.
The Magic finished 2012-13 ranked 25th in defensive efficiency, as opponents scored an eye-popping 106.7 points per 100 possessions. Orlando placed 22nd in field-goal percentage defense, as teams made 46.3 percent of their shots.
Davis’ absence as he continues to rehabilitate from a left-foot injury has made the Magic’s strong start defensively this season even more impressive.
Jason Maxiell, a rugged veteran who welcomes contact, started Orlando’s first six games at power forward, and he’s added toughness, determination and a few tone-setting blocks early in games.
Rookie guard Victor Oladipo also has helped because of his ability to defend either guard position.
Second-year small forward Maurice Harkless also has done a good job limiting opponents’ top wing scorers when he hasn’t faced foul trouble.
A key for the Magic is to keep their turnovers down and prevent opponents from pushing the ball in transition.
Through its first six games, Orlando ranked 20th in the league in turnovers, giving the ball away 17.4 times per game.
“When people play against our set defense, I think we’re in decent shape,” Vaughn said.
So far, the statistics are proving him correct.
Josh Robbins covers the Orlando Magic and the NBA for the Orlando Sentinel. You can reach him via e-mail at email@example.com and connect with him on Facebook at facebook.com/JoshuaBRobbins. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaBRobbins.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun