Denton: Harkless Staying Positive and Ready

Maurice Harkless

By John Denton
Dec. 15, 2013

OKLAHOMA CITY – Much of the focus around the Orlando Magic this season has been affixed on rookie guard Victor Oladipo’s adaptation to the NBA at the tender age of 21 years old.

But Oladipo isn’t even the youngest player on the Magic’s roster. That distinction still belongs to 20-year-old Maurice Harkless even though he is now in his second NBA season.

Harkless has been out of the Magic’s regular rotation much of the past three games, playing just 17 minutes combined and not getting into Friday’s 109-100 loss to Cleveland. But because of Harkless’ past success against Oklahoma City – especially on the defensive end – the 6-foot-9 forward could be back in the mix tonight when the Magic (7-16) face the Thunder (18-4) at 7 p.m. ET.

Harkless wants to do whatever he can to get back into the rotation for the Magic. He said that he’s tired of hearing that his relatively young age is holding him back and he wants to start producing for the Magic.

``I don’t think that should be used as an excuse,’’ Harkless said if his age. ``There are guys in the league the same age as me and there might even be some younger than me now. We’re all basketball players and we all know how to play, so age shouldn’t matter. I just have to go play hard and do what I know how to do.’’

When Orlando played in Oklahoma City last March, the Thunder scored 39 first-quarter points, had 72 first-half points and led by as much as 27 points. But Orlando stormed back into the game to briefly take the lead – largely because of the defense of Harkless. He slowed down superstar forward Kevin Durant in the second half, forcing him into six turnovers. Harkless had six steals to go along with his 12 points to keep Orlando in it before Oklahoma City surged late for the victory.

A week later in Orlando, Harkless incredibly matched Durant in a back-and-forth game. Harkless had what was then a career-best 25 points by making 11 of 18 shots and two of three 3-pointers. And he completed the stellar all-around effort with nine rebounds, four steals and four blocks.

``Last year, it was so hard to spend the whole game coming back and you can’t close it out,’’ Harkless said of the first meeting against the Thunder. ``Tonight, hopefully we do a better job of staying in the game and give ourselves a chance to win.’’

Coach Jacque Vaughn said that all of the Magic’s players will need to be ready to play against a Thunder team that has not lost at Energy Solutions Arena this season. Orlando will have its hands full trying to slow down Durant and all-star point guard Russell Westbrook. The Magic will likely use Arron Afflalo, Tobias Harris and Harkless on the 6-foot-10 Durant, who leads the NBA in scoring at 28.5 points per game.

``We’re going to need all hands on deck,’’ Vaughn said. ``Different matchups lend to different people playing. So, (Harkless) has been ready and he’ll be ready tonight if his number is called.’’

Harkless played just seven minutes and 10 minutes in road games in Memphis and Charlotte last week. Then, as Harris was returning to the rotation from a high ankle sprain, Harkless wasn’t used on Friday against Cleveland. It was the first game this season that he didn’t play. He isn’t happy about it, but has said he’s tried to stay focused and ready.

``I just stay positive,’’ he said. ``I don’t know when I’m going to play and when I’m not so I just stay positive and ready.’’

As for guarding Durant, Harkless said his main goal is to try and frustrate the superstar and attempt to move him off his favorite spots on the floor. Harkless did something right last season, forcing Durant into 11 turnovers in the two meetings. Still, Durant scored 26 and 25 points and had big shots at the end of both games.

``I just try to make it tough on him because you’re not going to stop him,’’ Harkless said. ``He’s averaging almost 30, so you’re not going to totally shut him down. You just try to make it as tough on him as possible and not give him as many looks. Everybody knows what he wants to do – he’s looking to shoot a lot of threes and get to the basket. So we’ll just try to make it hard for him. You don’t want to let him catch it in the post and you have to get over the pick-and-rolls – just be on his behind.’’