PER Diem: Dec. 19, 2008

With Dwight Howard back in the mix, the Magic turned their defensive power on against the Spurs. Fernando Medina/Getty Images

Pity me, for on Thursday I decided to watch the early game and then turn in early for some shut-eye. So I saw Orlando pound San Antonio 90-78, and missed seeing Brandon Roy score 52 points (with NO turnovers) on Phoenix.

Thus, you'll have to pardon me while I discuss the Magic a bit. Orlando won again Thursday, its 20th win in its past 24 games, and has moved up to seventh in the Power Rankings. Yet there still seems to be some confusion as to how the Magic are winning.

The national TV audience heard Orlando described as "getting better" on defense, while the screen flashed up a few numbers that had them ranked between eighth and tenth in the league.

This, again, is where per-possession stats are really illuminating. Orlando plays a relatively fast pace, ranking ninth in pace factor at 95.6, and as a result only ranks ninth in opponent scoring at 94.8.

Those stats make the Magic sound like a nice little team that's somewhat above average on defense.

In reality, they're ferocious.

Orlando is third in the NBA in defensive efficiency at 98.2, more than five points better than the league average. While they've compiled those results against a soft early schedule, Orlando is far enough ahead of the No. 4 Lakers that we can reasonably expect them to maintain this lofty position even as the competition gets more difficult.

We saw a good example of the Magic's defensive power Thursday, when they completely shut San Antonio out of the paint and forced them to shoot jumpers all night (or not shoot them, in Tony Parker's case). With Dwight Howard leading the league in shot-blocking and rebounding and coach Stan Van Gundy getting the most out of the fairly average group of defenders surrounding Howard, the Magic have become an elite defensive squad.

As good as the Cavs and Celtics have been, the Magic's D might not be enough to save them from another second-round elimination. But let's not give them short shrift, either -- their stellar defensive play is worthy of far more praise. The Magic get compliments, but in my opinion, deserve higher praise.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.