For head coach Stan Van Gundy, his defense-first philosophy is one of the main reasons that the Orlando Magic have won 52 games or more in four seasons under his watch. With Dwight Howard manning the middle, some of the Magic’s defensive tenets are as followed: limit shot opportunities at the rim, don’t foul as to prevent free-throw opportunities, and coerce as many jumpshots as possible. Also, rebounding the basketball and getting back in transition (thus sacrificing chances for offensive rebounds) are things that matter a great deal to Van Gundy. Rarely will you see Orlando try and go for steals, for example, because Van Gundy would rather rely on fundamentals on defense than gamble and be out of position.
Which is why witnessing Van Gundy rely on a zone defense to win a game for the Magic is plain shocking. It just doesn’t happen. Van Gundy doesn’t use a zone because he doesn’t want to nor does he need to. Given that Orlando has finished sixth or better in Defensive Rating since 2008 and has a three-time Defensive Player of the Year at his disposal, can you blame Van Gundy? Yet with the Magic ranked 18th in Defensive Rating entering their contest with the New York Knicks on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Van Gundy decided to go into his bag of tricks and use a rarely-used defensive scheme. With the Knicks attacking the rim, drawing fouls, and racking up points in the paint, Van Gundy went with a zone.
It’s not so much that Van Gundy utilized a zone. With Howard in foul trouble with five fouls and Orlando going neck-and-neck with New York in crunch time, it’s that Van Gundy threw the zone out there at the perfect time. It served as the Magic’s trump card and the Knicks had no answer for it.
And it wasn’t like Orlando’s zone defense was spectacular. New York just generally did a poor job of attacking it. There’s a lot of ways to attack a zone and strategies can vary, whether it’s high school, college, whatever, but some of the basic things that players are taught is to attack the middle and keep the ball moving.
SLIDE 1, 2, 3:
On this possession, and on many other possessions in the fourth quarter, the Knicks keep the ball moving but they don’t attack the middle. Toney Douglas kicks things off with a pass to Carmelo Anthony on the right wing. Anthony actually has an open look for a three-pointer but he elects to pass the basketball to Iman Shumpert as Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu converge on him. Shumpert, then, proceeds to dribble penetrate into the lane but Turkoglu does a good job of leading him to Dwight Howard, the help defender.
SLIDE 4, 5:
Tyson Chandler is calling for a lob but that’s not a realistic play, and Ryan Anderson has a body on Amar’e Stoudemire in the paint. Redick is helping on Chandler but darts back, along with Nelson, to Douglas when he receives the basketball from Shumpert. Douglas immediately passes it to Anthony. At this point, Anthony makes the decision to take a contested jumper with Turkoglu there to disrupt the shot. Anthony misses. This sequence would be repeated several times over for New York.
Again, the Magic’s zone defense wasn’t anything special. When the Knicks elected to attack the middle in the next couple of possessions, as Anthony did for a layup and Douglas did for a floater, it’s no coincidence that they scored. It’s amazing how simple the game can be.
Van Gundy deserves a lot of kudos for making the decision to go with a zone because he was aware of the situation. Orlando’s defense had struggled all day to put together a string of stops, Howard was in foul trouble, and New York only had two credible three-point threats on the perimeter in the game — Anthony and Douglas.
It’s rare that coaches have a direct impact on a game but Van Gundy did against the Knicks. It’s a luxury that not a lot of teams in the NBA have.
The Magic are fortunate in that regard.
Eddy Rivera is the Editor-in-Chief of Magic Basketball. Follow him on Twitter.