I was never, to put it mildly, a natural when it came to math. I vividly remember taking the SAT during my junior year of high school. The verbal sections were fine; I was comfortable; I knew my way around. But the math sections got ugly. I would begin to sweat; my mind would fill with expanding thickets of mostly useless information; the numbers would seem to float off the page. I knew that the problems were mostly tests of insight; and so I also knew that every mark I added to the paper, every tangential path my mind wandered, were taking me farther away from that nexus of intuition and efficiency that was crucial for good performance.
Defending the Orlando Magic is a little bit like that. When their offense is really humming–when the ball is moving inside-out and side-to-side, when they time their screens precisely–it presents the defense with a series of ever more hopeless decisions, each one leading them closer to a doorstep dunk or a wide open three. And then, of course, there is the Superman himself. I will ask you, just once, to recall how disheartening it was to watch Al Jefferson or Mad Dog Madsen or, like, Ryan Hollins try to guard Dwight Howard and consider how his frighteningly athletic presence down low can disfigure a defense and inflict crippling foul trouble. But for a number of reasons–foul trouble of his own, being forced to defend the perimeter, one meaty hunk of Montenegran man–the Wolves were able to limit Howard’s effectiveness on Monday.
In Orlando’s Rashard Lewis/less-grizzled-and bored-Turkoglu heyday, games between the Wolves and Magic were essentially a series of nearly insoluble matchup nightmares. And although the mismatches are less glaring than they once were, the Wolves are still, in term of personnel, notably unsuited to defending Stan van Gundy’s offense. For instance: many of Orlando’s shots are generated by the relentless movement of their wing players, Jason Richardson and J.J. Redick, without the ball. Are Wesley Johnson and Martell Webster (both being natural threes) any good at chasing perimeter players through mazes of off-the-ball screens? They are not. Ryan Anderson, the Magic’s starting power-forward is a master of the pick-and-pop and the weakside spot-up and has made more threes this year than anyone else in the league. Are Michael Beasley and Kevin Love skilled at recovering to challenge perimeter shooters? No again.
But the problem is holistic. The Wolves’ defense has improved this season in almost every way, but defending the Magic requires a veteran team, a team able to make intuitive decisions in quick succession, to anticipate the opponents offensive actions and hedge against them. The entire defense, from the ball defenders to the weakside rotaters, need to be thinking with one mind. Needless to say, the Wolves aren’t there yet.
The Wolves could have helped their cause by doing things like hitting their shots and taking care of the ball. But they didn’t do those things. The Wolves’ point guards, Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea, turned the ball over 12 times between them. The team hit just six of their 21 threes and 45.7% of their twos, many of them spoonfed by the attacking Rubio. These things carry the obvious consequence of making it much harder to score points but they also make defending a team like the Magic even more complex. If you thought those rotations and recoveries were tough when your defense was set, try doing it while racing back in transition, scrambling to find somebody to guard. As in every game, there were nuances aplenty, decisive shifts in momentum, opportunities seized and opportunities missed. But: when you don’t hit your own threes and you can’t stop your opponent from hitting theirs, the math gets pretty simple.