Seeking Third Straight Win, Magic Know They Will Be Put to Test Against Jazz

by John Denton

SALT LAKE CITY – Tonight, the suddenly surging Orlando Magic start one of their most difficult road trips of the season against one of the most difficult teams in the NBA to play.

And the Magic have the bitter memories from an ugly November loss to prove it.

The Magic (20-43) begin a five-game, 10-day road trip tonight in Utah (9 p.m. ET tipoff) against the Jazz (33-30), winners of 15 of the last 19 games to vault them into playoff competition in the rugged Western Conference.

``Like every road trip, it’s always tough to win on the road, especially starting off with Utah – a very good team that is playing better now,’’ Magic guard Evan Fournier. ``Then, we’ll focus on whatever is coming next (after facing the Jazz).’’

Both Orlando and Utah have won two straight games and both teams have ridden dominant defensive performances from young big men.

The Magic beat Detroit and Memphis thanks to four blocks shots, two steals, 17 contested shots and nine pass deflections from rookie forward Jonathan Isaac, who played a major role in Orlando holding its last two opponents to 43 and 40 percent shooting.

As for Utah, 7-foot-1, 245-pound center Rudy Gobert had 26 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks in a defeat of Minnesota on Friday and added 16 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in a win against Sacramento on Saturday.

``It’s a big challenge because they are really a force defensively with Gobert back there,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. ``He changes them in a number of ways and this is always a building that’s tough to get a win in. So, it will be a good test for us.’’

Utah’s season-saving hot stretch coincides with the return of Gobert, who has averaged 14.7 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks over the last 19 games. He’s put up 11 double-doubles during that stretch in addition to the excellent rim protection that he provides.

Orlando has struggled with rim protection all season, and Isaac gave it a big lift in that area with his return to action on Friday. The 6-foot-11, 222-pound forward originally injured his ankle on Nov. 11 and played just three games over the next four months as the pain and stiffness in his foot lingered.

He’s made just one basket since returning, but his impact has been felt in the way he’s frustrated opposing scorers with his long-armed defense. He deflected an inbounds pass in the final second of regulation on Friday and forced a key five-seconds violation late in Saturday’s win. Also, against Memphis, Isaac blocked a Jarell Martin 3-point attempt that could have tied the game in the final seconds.

Utah has a talented rookie of its own in guard Donovan Mitchell, the 13th pick of the last June’s NBA Draft. He leads all rookies in scoring at 19.9 points per game, while also contributing 3.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists a game. He has two 40-point games and two 30-point games this season for the surprising Jazz.

``I don’t like the word surprised, but I’m just happy for him because this dude is playing out of his mind,’’ said Isaac, whose Florida State Seminoles beat Mitchell’s Louisville Cardinals last season. ``At Louisville, I thought he was big-time anyway. He was a second-year guy in college and I thought he was big-time then. What he’s doing now is definitely amazing and he deserves everything that he’s getting (in publicity).’’

Mitchell had 12 points, six rebounds, three steals and three assists on Nov. 18 when the Jazz hammered the Magic 125-85 in a game where Orlando was still weary from its first West Coast trip of the season. By then, Isaac was already out with his ankle injury and it likely played into the fact that the Jazz shot 48 percent from the floor and drilled 14 3-pointers.

After tonight’s game in Utah, the Magic will face the Lakers (Wednesday), Kings (Friday), Clippers (Saturday) and Spurs (March 13) on the road. Orlando won’t be back at the Amway Center until March 14 when it hosts the Milwaukee Bucks.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.