Denton: Ultimate Road Challenge Tonight for Magic

By John Denton
March 15, 2013

OKLAHOMA CITY – On a team dominated by its youth – eight of the 14 players are in either their first or second NBA seasons – the Orlando Magic have been surprisingly resilient on the road and have notched some of their best wins away from Orlando.

The Magic won twice in Los Angeles, beating both the Lakers and Clippers in impressive fashion. They highlighted an early West Coast swing with victories in Oakland and Phoenix against the Warriors and Suns. And in the past three road games alone, Orlando had whipped Philadelphia, rallied past New Orleans in The Big Easy and came within a point of stopping the Miami Heat’s winning streak at 16 games.

``You would think with the youth on our team that it would be the complete opposite, but I think guys have embraced being on the road and the hostile environments and testing themselves (against elite teams),’’ Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. ``That’s been a good thing to see.’’

The Magic (18-47) will face the ultimate road challenge tonight when the play the Oklahoma City Thunder (48-17) at noisy Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Thunder have been especially good playing in front of their boisterous crowd, going 29-4 at home this season. To put into perspective just how much of a difference the home atmosphere means to the Thunder, they are just 19-13 on the road this season.

``(The mindset) is to go in and play hard and not let the fans get to us. I don’t know (first-hand), but I’ve heard this arena is pretty tough to play in. We just have to focus on the game plan and play hard,’’ said Magic rookie Maurice Harkless, who will be matched up against OKC star forward Kevin Durant tonight. ``It’s weird because I actually think we play better on the road. We go in as if it’s just us and we have to just play.’’

The game is the start of a four-game, seven-day roadtrip in which the Magic will face four teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Orlando faces Milwaukee and former Magic guard J.J. Redick on Sunday afternoon, then travels to Indiana (Tuesday) and New York (Wednesday).

``We need to get better every day no matter who we’re playing. We need to get better in practices and shootaround and film sessions. We need to have great attention to detail and do things the correct way,’’ Magic point guard and captain Jameer Nelson said. ``We’re trying to build something here, so we need to keep moving forward. We shouldn’t worry about the games that we’ve already played; we have to think about the ones ahead of us.’’

The Magic are just 8-22 on the road this season, but three of those wins have been against elite playoff teams. And they were up by five points on the Heat last week with two minutes to play before getting several bad breaks down the stretch and a LeBron James’ game-winning layup with 3.2 seconds remaining.

Nelson said being on the road has helped to bond a Magic team with five rookies and three second-year players. Nelson said he’s noticed that the team’s focus and intensity are sharper on the road because they know they have only one another to depend on.

``One thing is we always say when we’re out here on the road we’re the only ones out here (pulling for the Magic), so we have to stick together. We kind of practice what we preach.’’

Nelson, the longest-tenured Magic player on the roster in his ninth NBA season, said he takes a simplistic approach to playing in hostile environments. Nelson said that opposing crowds can affect a player only if they let it happen and he instead focuses on just the action on the court.

``It’s basketball and no one should be afraid in a basketball game,’’ Nelson added. ``It’s fun playing on the road and competing against the best in the world. If you do that, you’ll give yourself a chance.’’

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