Denton's Notebook: Monday, March 25

By John Denton
March 25, 2013

ORLANDO – While a stretch of games against the Lakers, Thunder (twice), Pacers, Knicks and Heat haven’t been good for the Orlando Magic’s win-loss record down the stretch, head coach Jacque Vaughn is convinced that facing a string of elite-level teams will provide good experience for his young team.

Vaughn has resisted the cliché of calling this the Magic’s playoffs, saying that when that time comes the team will celebrate it accordingly. But Vaughn does want his team – one filled with five rookies and three second-year players – to get accustomed to facing teams that are playing at a high level and making hard pushes toward the playoffs.

``The atmosphere and the intensity of the play are all heightened once you get into playoff basketball and it’s different than regular-season games. But teams who are jockeying for playoff position they are playing with a high level of intensity,’’ Vaughn said. ``This is a great test for our guys to be able to see if we can match that intensity.’’

One Magic rookie who is benefitting from the increased intensity of the competition is Maurice Harkless, who has guarded LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Steve Nash and Paul George of late. Harkless has also shown signs of great promise offensively of late, scoring a career-best 25 points on Friday against Oklahoma City. That came on the heels of him pouring in 23 points last week against the Milwaukee Bucks.

``These teams are all fighting for positioning and seeing and that makes them go extra hard. That gives us experience of playing in games with that intensity,’’ Harkless said. It’s another whole level when it gets to playoff time and we’re learning that from these teams.’’

COMPLIMENTING HARKLESS: Some of the highest profile names in the NBA are taking notice of Harkless’ rise as an elite defender and a shot-maker for the Magic. Just Friday night it was Durant complimenting Harkless and being in disbelief that the small forward is just 19 years old because of his poise and maturity.

On Monday it was Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, who was highly complimentary of Harkless’ blossoming skills at both ends of the floor. Harkless did not play in the teams’ first meeting in December, but he had 12 points, three steals and two blocks when Orlando played in Miami earlier in the month. And Spoelstra said he was quite impressed when watching the Magic’s most recent games in preparation for Monday’s game.

``He’s an interesting player and I think the Magic have done an interesting job of acquiring a lot of young talent,’’ Spoelstra said. ``In our games, you can see (Harkless’) talent. He’s a live wire and a skilled player. He’s so young and so raw, but you can see that he has a great deal of potential. I find him to be very interesting like a lot of other players on their roster.’’

Spoelstra has also been impressed with the way that the Magic have rebuilt their roster around several young pieces with tons of potential. Those young players allowed the Magic to take Miami into overtime in December and come within seconds of beating them in South Florida earlier in the month.

``It’s a young group, but they play hard. That’s one of the things that we’ve had to deal with with this (Magic) team – the youth, the speed and the quickness and the quick-twitch that they just keep on coming at you with,’’ Spoelstra said. ``They’re well-coached and Coach Vaughn has done a great job with this crew.’’

AFFLALO STILL IN PAIN: Magic shooting guard Arron Afflalo said on Monday that there is still plenty of pain his leg after tearing his hamstring muscle – an injury that will knock him out of action the rest of the season.

Afflalo landed awkwardly while trying to avoid a diving Nick Collison and immediately reached for the back of his leg. Afflalo needed help from two teammates to get to the locker room on Friday night and he was still walking with a limp on Monday.

``I don’t know if my leg was turned inward as I reached down for the ball, but whatever movement I made caused me to have a slight tear in my muscle down there,’’ Afflalo said. ``Obviously, there isn’t much time left in the season so there’s no way I would be even get remotely back to play.’’

Afflalo said there is still swelling and stiffness in his leg, but the pain isn’t nearly as great as it was Friday night and throughout Saturday. He said will likely take some time off before starting his offseason workout program.

``My mindset had been to work out so much around the clock to not only finish this season strong, but also to go into the summer strong and be that much better next season,’’ Afflalo said. ``So this is a situation that forces me to calm down and rest my body and let this heal. In six-to-eight weeks I’ll hit it strong again.’’

ETC: Magic center Nikola Vucevic missed his third straight game on Monday night because of a concussion suffered last Tuesday night in Indiana. Vucevic, who was hit in the mouth twice against the Pacers, is now subject to the NBA’s protocol for head injuries, meaning he has to pass a variety of non-contact drills before being allowed to return to practice and then games. Not having Vucevic against the Heat was especially impactful for the Magic because of him grabbing 50 rebounds against Miami in the two previous meetings this season. … Harkless was flattered that Durant had positive things to say about him. Said the 6-foot-8 small forward: ``I heard that stuff because people tell me that stuff sometimes, but it’s humbling to know that people are noticing the work that I’m putting in and what I’m doing out there on the court.’’ Afflalo said that missing games like Monday’s showdown against the Heat would be especially painful to him because he’s had some of his best performances against the NBA’s elite-level teams. He scored 30 against both the Lakers and Clippers and he had a 28-point effort against the Heat earlier in the season. Said Afflalo: ``This is a tough one (to miss). You have to find motivation and purpose in a lot of these games that we were going to have considering that mathematically we couldn’t make the playoffs. Tonight would have been a great reason to go have fun and compete at a high level.’’ … Orlando plays the Bobcats in Charlotte on Wednesday night.

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