By John Denton
Jan. 2, 2018
– With the losses starting to bleed into one another at a dizzying rate for the Orlando Magic, guard/forward Evan Fournier sounded somewhat like a broken man late Monday as he pondered what could have been over the past few nights.
``We had a good win against Detroit (on Thursday) and then we let one game slip against Miami (on Saturday) and (on Monday) I felt like we should have won, too,’’ Fournier said while trying to parse out a grueling three-game stretch for the Magic. ``So, those three games could have easily been a three-game winning streak. If we’re going to start winning again, we definitely have to put some (solid play) together in a row where we’re playing consistent basketball.’’
Consistency has been but a rumor for weeks for the 12-26 Magic, who haven’t won consecutive games since Nov. 8 and 10. Since that date, an Orlando team oft-ravaged by injuries has twice dropped nine in a row – with the two skids sandwiching a bizarre stretch where it yo-yoed back and forth between winning and losing for five games. The Magic showed a glimmer of hope in the completeness with which it whipped the Pistons late last week, but fourth-quarter struggles in losses to Miami and Brooklyn seemed to sap any sort of momentum out of the squad.
Not only is Orlando nearing the midpoint of the season, but it has powerhouse teams Houston (Wednesday) and Cleveland (Saturday) dead ahead and it knows full well that the fate of the season could be hanging in the balance. If the Magic can’t win on nights like Saturday when they led Miami by 18 points in the second half and they can’t win on nights like Monday when they were playing a fatigued Brooklyn team, then when? Magic center Bismack Biyombo said the team is far too well-coached and talented to still be dealing with such questions at this point in the season.
``It’s not just this game; it’s all of the games that we can win – we’ve got to win them,’’ said Biyombo, one of Orlando’s bright spots of late while starting in place of injured center Nikola Vucevic (broken left hand). ``We keep talking about, `it’s a long season,’ but at some point we have to come out and figure this out.’’
The Magic will try to do just that on Wednesday against a Houston team that can relate to the misery of injuries and a prolonged losing streak.
The NBA’s hottest team most of the season, the Rockets didn’t end a puzzling five-game losing streak until Sunday night when they outlasted the Los Angeles Lakers 148-142 in double-overtime. Even though the Rockets got Chris Paul (strained left adductor) and Clint Capela (bruised left heel and fractured right orbital bone) back, the victory proved costly as superstar guard James Harden limped off after a 40-point, 11-assist because of a strained right hamstring.
On Monday, the injury was ruled a Grade-2 strain, meaning the leading candidate for the NBA’s MVP award will miss at least two weeks. Harden, who has missed just two games since the start of the 2014-15 season, ranks first in the NBA in scoring (32.1) and second in assists (9.1), meaning Houston (26-9) could fall even further behind the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference standings.
``Their style of play, in itself, is very challenging no matter who is the primary ball-handler,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said on Tuesday. ``They’ve still got two guys in Eric Gordon and Chris Paul who can do it at the highest of levels as well. Not having Harden in there doesn’t mean were getting a weaker opponent; they’re just as capable of putting of putting together a (win) as they are without him. We’ve got to play a great basketball game.’’
Playing great for prolonged periods of time has been elusive to the Magic because of their inability to string much of anything together. Not just on a game-to-game basis, but finding success from quarter-to-quarter has been tricky of late for Orlando.
The Magic played inspired basketball the day after Christmas only to see a 10-point third-quarter lead disappear because of a host of turnovers. On Thursday against the Pistons, the Magic won 102-89 for one of its most convincing victories in weeks, but they still had to endure droughts of 14-0 and 12-0.
On Saturday, the Magic seemed to be on the verge of running the Heat out of the Amway Center early on by racing their way to 24 fast-break points in the game’s first 24 minutes. However, Orlando got few defensive stops and had just one basket off the fast break in the second half and fell a second time in five days to the Heat.
Then, on Monday as they were facing a Brooklyn team playing a second night in a row and for a fifth time in seven days, the Magic were the ones that sputtered late. With the game tied at 95, Elfrid Payton missed a free throw, Fournier and D.J. Augustin misfired on 3-point shots and the Magic defense fouled twice to give Brooklyn the three free throws that proved to be the difference in a 98-95 defeat.
``We need to mature as a team quickly because we’re just letting these games get out of hand,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who scored 10 first-quarter points on Monday, but had just 10 points the rest of the night. ``We’re not executing at the end and we’re letting these games go. It’s the second game in a row that we’ve let a game go. We need to definitely take a good look at this one and probably another look at the Miami game and mature very quickly as a team.
Gordon said the Magic got away from a style of playing for one another that was so successful in Thursday’s defeat of Detroit and in Saturday’s strong start. Brooklyn tricked up the game a bit by using a small, quick lineup and it switched every Orlando pick-and-roll play – something that resulted in the Magic’s movement grinding to a halt. More screening, cutting and ball movement might have helped the situation, Gordon said.
``We’ve got to get everybody on the same page and we need to know exactly what we’re looking for down the stretch, what we’re trying to get into and what shots we need to execute,’’ Gordon elaborated. ``Everybody on the team, on the coaching staff and in the organization, we’ve just got to get everybody on the same page and be sure what we need to do with three minutes left in the game and we’re up.’’
Out of the playoffs the past five seasons, the Magic hoped that this would be the season that they played well throughout and made a push at the postseason in the pedestrian Eastern Conference. That won’t happen, of course, if the Magic can’t string together success from night to night and captured victories in winnable games such as on Saturday and Monday.
Shaking his head in amazement that Orlando is still looking for ways to put it all together, Gordon said he had to self-scout his own game and figure out ways to be more effective when defenses such as Brooklyn’s ``face guard’’ him as it did on Monday.
``I need to mature quickly so my guys can rely on me, so that my coaching staff and the organization has trust in me,’’ said the 22-year-old Gordon. ``So, I need to mature quickly and continue to figure out ways to win for this team so that we can win as a group.’’
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