Denton: Magic Hoping Injuries Won't Prevent Strong Finish

By John Denton
March 26, 2013

ORLANDO – Down two more starters, bringing the total to a staggering four from Opening Night back in November, Orlando Magic coach Jacque Vaughn appealed to the pride and competitiveness of his short-handed squad on Monday night.

Even though his team was about to take on the surging Miami Heat, Vaughn talked to his team about living in the moment, embracing the challenge and fighting against the odds.

``I tell the guys there’s one guarantee that I’ve got for you – you’re not guaranteed tomorrow,’’ Vaughn recalled. ``Enjoy this, enjoy this process and enjoy playing the game of basketball, competing and doing what you have been doing your whole life. You have an opportunity to (compete), so take advantage of it. That’s what it boils down to and guys with good character, they step up and they participate and that’s what this is all about.’’

Vaughn’s motivational tactics worked for the better part of three quarters as the Magic matched the steam-rolling Heat stride for stride and once had the game tied at 68. And that took place even as the Magic lost another contributor – power forward Andrew Nicholson sprained his ankle in the first quarter and did not return – to leave the front line painfully thin because of injuries.

Miami would eventually pull away for the victory – its 27th in a row to move within six wins of equaling the all-time NBA record of 33 straight. But a side note was how the injury-ravaged Magic fought against the Heat and showed plenty of promise for the future. None other than Heat coach Erik Spoelstra took note of the grit of Orlando’s collection of young players.

``We’ve had three tough games against them. They’re not afraid, that bunch,’’ said Spoelstra, who also offered up high praise of the Magic’s rebuilding plan around youthful pieces in the pregame on Monday. ``They gave us everything that we could handle. … It’s a lot of speed and quickness that (Orlando) brings to the game. Those young kids are fearless, so we had to earn it.’’

Orlando (18-53) is hoping to use that same sort of competitiveness and resiliency down the stretch of the regular season, starting Wednesday night in Charlotte against the Bobcats (16-54). Orlando won early in the season in Charlotte – when the team was still mostly whole and yet to be riddled by injuries – but has since lost the two meetings in Orlando.

For the first time in six years, the Magic won’t be finishing the season in the playoffs – ending the Eastern Conference’s longest active playoff run. But there is still plenty to play for down the stretch as a young Magic team is hoping to stockpile as much big-game experience as possible to use in the future. Rookie center Kyle O’Quinn said many of the Magic players are treating this final stretch of games as if they are fighting for their NBA lives and will play accordingly.

``We know we have to go through these final 11 games hard. Some of us young guys didn’t play a lot early in the season, and this game experience is the experience we take with us because you can’t do this in practice,’’ said O’Quinn, Orlando’s starter at center the past three games. ``We’re taking this (stretch of games) as a learning experience. We have all young guys in Tobias (Harris) and (Doron) Jamb coming over (from Milwaukee), so we’re all looking to take advantage of this opportunity. Win, lose or draw, we’re trying to get something out of every game.’’

The Magic were without Arron Afflalo (torn hamstring), Nikola Vucevic (concussion) and Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis (broken foot) on Monday against the Heat, but they could get some help Wednesday night in Charlotte with the return of Hedo Turkoglu. The veteran small forward has missed the past 20 games after testing positive for a substance on the banned list.

Monday was Turkoglu’s 20th game missed and he is eligible to come off the suspended list on Wednesday, but it is unknown how much he will play for the Magic.

Turkoglu has remained around the Magic’s practice facility much of the past five weeks, working out and working on his game. But young players Maurice Harkless and Tobias Harris are firmly entrenched at the forward spots, so there might not be much playing time available for Turkoglu.

Turkoglu’s season has been disastrous almost from the start. He broke a bone in his hand on Opening Night and subsequently missed the next eight weeks. He played poorly and struggled with lingering pain and limited mobility in his hand after returning, shooting just 26.4 percent from the field and averaging only 2.9 points per game.

Instead, the Magic are expected to stick with the combination of Harkless and Harris at the forward slots. Both have shined of late when given major minutes against some of the best players in the world. Harkless had 23- and 25-point games recently, while Harris stepped up to the challenge of facing Chris Bosh on Monday night with a 20-point, five-rebound night.

``I knew that Chris Bosh was on mein the beginning so my goal was to try to space him out and try to use my speed to my advantage,’’ said Harris, who made eight of 14 shots and two of three 3-pointers. ``With Arron out and Nik not playing, it opens up scoring for me and I knew I had to be extra aggressive and that’s what I tried to do.’’

What Vaughn has tried to do of late is to get his teams to see way some of the NBA’s top squads play and have his young Magic learn from it. Monday’s game against the Heat ended a stretch of seven consecutive playoff teams that the Magic have faced – most notably 2012 Finalists Oklahoma City and Miami. Vaughn has continued to stress to his team that plenty can be learned from those foes, primarily the way they prepare for games and they way they sharpen their focus and intensity when the game is on the line.

Not long after Monday night’s game, Vaughn was in O’Quinn’s ear, making sure that instead of being down about another loss that he learned from the game against the streaking Heat.

``I just talked to Coach (Vaughn) and he was telling me, `This is what you play for and what you want to play against,’’’ O’Quinn said. ``These are the guys you want to look at and copy off of. These guys are very serious and you can tell their preparation that went into it. To win 27 games in a row, that’s impressive and you tip your hat to them. But you look at them and you want to be just like them someday.’’

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