Frank Vogel: "Continue to Believe in Ourselves"

By John Denton
Jan. 10, 2017

LOS ANGELES – At some point in every NBA season, there comes a make-or-break, sink-or-swim moment when a team must shed its struggles, make a stand and show the kind of fight needed to stay afloat.

Fail to do those things, and the course of a season just might head the depressingly opposite direction.

An Orlando Magic team certain that this would be the season that it returns to the playoffs has arrived at this critical juncture much sooner than it could have ever imagined. The Magic are still a matter of days away from hitting the season’s official half-way point, but they are aware if they don’t soon stop another troubling slide that things might look bleak going forward.

At 16-23 and in the throes of a three-game losing streak, the Magic came into Tuesday seven games below .500 and 3½ games back of the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Orlando entered the season figuring it would take at least a .500 record – and possibly even a couple of wins above that mark – to get into the playoffs. As they head into Wednesday’s game in Los Angeles against the Clippers (26-14) – the second game of a 12-night, six-game trip – the Magic know that their critical moment in the season has arrived.

``This road trip is huge for us. We’re seven games behind (.500) and if we don’t win some games we’re going to fall further behind some of the teams in the East that are starting to win,’’ said Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who enjoyed practicing at his alma mater of USC on Tuesday and below a massive picture showing him in a black and red Trojans jersey. ``This isn’t November anymore, it’s January and we’re 40-something games in. We’ve got to figure it out quickly or it’s going to be a bad season for us again.’’

Head coach Frank Vogel was beyond frustrated by Orlando’s unsightly 111-95 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night because of his team’s alternating struggles defensively and offensively. But as the team returned to practice on Tuesday, Vogel is preaching togetherness among a Magic team trying to put the pieces back together again.

``We’ve got to continue to believe in ourselves. I believe in this group,’’ Vogel said. ``We haven’t played well enough yet, but we have to stay together and remain committed to what we’re doing and remain confident in each other.’’

Orlando will need all the confidence that it can muster facing a daunting schedule over the next five games of the longest road trip of the season. On Wednesday, the Magic face a Clippers team that has beaten them six times in a row, including a 113-108 decision in Orlando on Dec. 14. Then, it’s onto Portland and Utah for a difficult back-to-back set of games. The trip ends with winnable, but challenging games in Denver and New Orleans.

By then, Orlando could have saved its season with a stirring road run similar to what it did six weeks ago when it ripped off four wins on a five-game trip. Or, if things continue to go south and the Magic can’t figure out their issues with getting stops and a lack of sharing the ball offensively, things could turn dire in the bid for a playoff berth.

``We’ve got to stay close to .500 before the All-Star break. If we get to seven or eight games behind, it’s going to be mission impossible,’’ Magic guard Evan Fournier, the team’s leading scorer at 17.5 points per game, said of the chase for a playoff berth. ``So we’ve got to stay around four or five games and then make a push.’’

Forward Aaron Gordon, one of the team’s most mature and reasoned players even though he’s just 21 years old, knows that it is imperative that the Magic make their move soon.

``Coming into January, you don’t expect a completely new team, but you try to make a push and establish who you are and who you are going to be through the whole season,’’ Gordon said. ``(Sunday), we didn’t show it at all. … We definitely need more urgency, but we don’t need any more pressure. Pressure is not going to help us. But we need to be more urgent and more fundamentally sound defensively. And offensively, we have to share the ball to get good looks. If those things happen, we’ll be perfectly fine.’’

The Magic were anything but fine on Sunday against a Lakers team that it had whipped soundly in Orlando three weeks earlier. Orlando surrendered 40 points and 70 percent shooting in the first quarter – something shocking considering that it blocked a franchise record nine shots and allowed just 12 first-quarter points on Dec. 23 at the Amway Center. After a nice second-quarter rally, capped by a momentum-boosting 3-pointer by Elfrid Payton just before the halftime horn, Orlando suffered through an offensive meltdown in the third. They missed their first 11 shots of the period and made just two of 20 shots to seal their fate for the night.

It was not the start to the potentially season-defining road trip that the Magic hoped for.

On Wednesday, the Magic will be back in the very same Staples Center locker room as three nights earlier and they will be attempting to wash away Sunday’s sourness against Chris Paul, J.J. Redick and the Clippers. And, in the process, the Magic just might be able to reverse their course with a victory or even a strong, competitive effort.

``We’re trying to make that stand right now, but the message isn’t getting through,’’ Vogel said. ``Until we start playing defense at a playoff-team level, we’re going to continue to fall behind.’’

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