5 Magic Questions Post All-Star Break

by John Denton

ORLANDO – The Orlando Magic’s first 55 games were filled with plenty of highs, lows and crippling injuries, yet there is still plenty to play for over the final 27 games and seven weeks remaining in the regular season.

With the Magic sitting at 24-31 and eighth in the Eastern Conference, they are of the belief that they have yet to play their best basketball. The longest winning streak of the season was four victories in a row from Dec. 1-6, while the longest losing skid was a five-gamer from Jan. 22-Feb. 1. But the Magic can take solace in the fact that they seemed to have stabilized themselves in early February and hit the break for the NBA All-Star Game riding a modest two-game winning streak.

With all of that in mind, here are five burning questions that will get answered – one way or another – over what is left of the 2019-20 regular season.

Can the Magic not only reach the playoffs for the second season in a row, but also climb out of the No. 8 seed?

As currently situated, the Magic are in position to get back to the playoffs for a second straight season – something that the franchise hasn’t done since the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. That would qualify as something of an accomplishment considering that the Magic have been severely crippled by the knee injuries to Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu, two players who are likely out for the rest of the season. Isaac, in particular, was on pace to become an All-Defensive player this season with the way he dominated games defensively with his shot-blocking and ability to rack up steals.

Still, the Magic have to have loftier goals than just simply making the playoffs. Considering the shaky state of the bottom half of the Eastern Conference, Orlando is likely something of a lock to at least finish in the top eight. The Magic sit three games ahead of Washington (20-33), five games clear of Chicago (19-36) and 5 ½ ahead of Charlotte (18-36). It would take something of an epic collapse for Orlando to miss the postseason and that’s just not likely to happen considering its veteran core and the quality of its coaching.

Another factor in the Magic’s favor: They have the NBA’s third-easiest remaining schedule with their 27 opponents having a combined winning percentage of just .464. Orlando plays only 10 teams the rest of the way with winning records, meaning it has 17 games left with teams with losing marks. The Magic are 19-7 this season against foes with losing records.

To put those numbers into context, Brooklyn – the team two games ahead of the Magic in the standings at 25-28 – have the 14th easiest schedule remaining. The Nets’ remaining opponents have a .499 winning percentage. Not only do they have two more games left to play than the Magic, they must face Milwaukee twice, Boston twice and the Clippers and Lakers on the road.

Of course, the Magic want to avoid East-leading Milwaukee in the first round of the playoffs after losing to the Bucks four times. Current, No. 2 Toronto (40-15), is 3-0 this season against the Magic. Boston (38-16) is also a candidate to rise up to the No. 2 seed.

Can Aaron Gordon channel whatever lingering anger he has over the results of the dunk contest and be the X-factor that the Magic need going forward?

In the days leading up to Saturday’s thrilling AT&T Slam Dunk contest in Chicago, Gordon said one of the reasons that he entered this season’s event was because of the feedback he got from fans constantly telling him that the was ``robbed’’ of the 2016 dunk title.

Now, four years after narrowly losing out to Zach LaVine, Gordon is hearing the same sort of comments after he controversially finished runner-up once again despite recording a never-before-seen five straight perfect-score dunks. Even though he hurdled 7-foot-5 center Tacko Fall – the former UCF product who helped the Knights win their first NCAA Tournament game last spring – Gordon came up a point short and finished second to Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr.

It wasn’t surprising that Gordon had so much life and energy in the Dunk Contest considering that he had been playing his best basketball of the season in the weeks leading up to the event. In his seven games prior to the All-Star Game break, Gordon averaged 19.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists while shooting 45.4 percent from the floor and 41.2 percent from 3-point range – big improvements over his production in December (14 games, 13.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 40.2 percent from the floor and 30.4 percent from 3-point range) and January (13 games, 13.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 45.1 percent from the floor and 27.1 percent from 3-point range).

Two of Gordon’s best all-around performances of the season came last week against Atlanta (26 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two 3-pointers) and Detroit (25 points, nine rebounds, nine assists and three 3-pointers) – both of which were Magic victories. As has been the case for a couple of seasons now, Gordon’s play is very often a barometer for the Magic as he has posted significantly better numbers in the 22 wins that he’s appeared in (16.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 45 percent shooting overall and 34.5 percent from 3-point range) than in the 27 losses he’s been a part of (12.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 40.2 percent shooting overall and 27.8 percent from 3-point range).

The Magic desperately need Gordon to be active and aggressive over the final 27 games of the season. When he plays within himself – getting his points off fast-break opportunities, put-backs, hard cuts to the rim, post-ups against smaller defenders and spot-up 3-point shots – he’s often more efficient and the Magic offense operates better. If he can maintain the level that he was at prior to the break – and mix in some of the lingering fury over the Dunk Contest result – Gordon can elevate the Magic to new heights.

Can the Magic generate enough offense and become as defensively dominant as they were late last season?

To be blunt, the Magic were a mess offensively much of the first 55 games because of their inability to consistently knock down shots. So far, they rank 29th in scoring (103.9 points per game), 29th in field goal percentage (43.4 percent) and 27th in 3-point percentage (33.7 percent). Nikola Vucevic (19 points and 10.8 rebounds a game) and Terrence Ross (13.4 points and 32.2 percent 3-point shooting) have been unable to play as efficiently thus far, but they could be poised for strong finishes. Evan Fournier (18.7 points, 46.2 percent overall shooting and 40.8 percent 3-point shooting) has had a nice bounce-back season in terms of shooting and has plenty of motivation to finish strong.

Orlando’s offense seemed to come alive in the two games before the break when it scored 135 and 116 points with 33 and 34 assists in those victories. Orlando is a dazzling 15-1 this season when scoring at least 115 points and a respectable 20-12 when scoring at least 100 points.

Head coach Steve Clifford has said all season that the Magic will become more consistent and more dominant when they get back to playing the kind of defense that they did late last season. Over the final 31 games of last season, Orlando ranked first in the NBA in points allowed per game (104.5 points) and 3-point percentage allowed (31.5 percent), third in defensive rebounding (37.4 boards per game) and seventh in field goal percentage allowed (44.5 percent).

A Magic team that likely won’t have the nearly 7-foot Isaac this time around has ranked first in the NBA thus far in points allowed per game (105.4 points). However, the Magic have witnessed slippage in field goal percentage allowed (45.8 percent, 16th), 3-point percentage allowed (36.5 percent, 22nd) and defensive rebounding (34.1 boards per game, 19th).

James Ennis III, who was acquired in a deal with Philadelphia just prior to the NBA trade deadline, could eventually become a starter at the small forward position – a move that might make the Magic better offensively and defensively in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Can the Magic win their share of the biggest games remaining? Here are five of the most significant games and stretches remaining:

  • Feb. 21, vs. Dallas – Luka Doncic makes his lone appearance to the Amway Center on the season and the Magic want revenge for their last-minute, controversial loss in Dallas on Nov. 6.

  • Feb. 24, March 23 and March 27, at Brooklyn, at Brooklyn and vs. Brooklyn – The Magic already hold a 1-0 lead on the Nets thanks to their 101-89 win on Jan. 6 in Orlando. Last season, the Magic and Nets both won 42 games, but Brooklyn got the higher playoff seed by virtue of winning the season series. That could be the case again and if the Magic are to jump to the No. 7 seed, they’ll likely have to play well against the Nets.

  • March 4, vs. Miami – Not only will this be the first meeting between Gordon against Jones Jr. since the controversial dunk contest, but it will be the start of what figures to be a difficult four-game road trip for the Magic. Orlando also faces the Timberwolves, Rockets and rapidly improving Grizzlies on the trip.

  • March 29, vs. New Orleans – Zion Williamson, the No. 1 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, is trying to get the Pelicans into the playoffs in his rookie season. After missing the first three months of the season following knee surgery, the 6-foot-6, 284-pound Williamson has taken the league by storm with his dynamic play in the paint. Not only does he have six 20-point performances and 31- and 32-point efforts in his final two games before the break, Williamson has averaged 22.1 points on 57.6 percent shooting thus far in 10 games. Undoubtedly, he’ll be a handful for the Magic to try and slow down during his one visit to the Amway Center.

  • April 15, vs. Toronto – This game could serve as something of a playoff preview if the Magic can jump to the No. 7 seed and the Raptors can hang onto No. 2. Toronto started its run to the NBA title last season with a 4-1 defeat of Orlando in the first round. Despite losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency last July, the Raptors have been one of the NBA’s best stories of the season. They saw their 15-game winning streak come to an end just before the All-Star break in a road loss to the Nets.

Can the continued development of Markelle Fultz and the return of veteran D.J. Augustin make the offense more efficient and take the Magic to another level?

Fultz, 21, has become one of the NBA’s absolute feel-good stories this season with how he’s overcome the shoulder issues that threatened to derail his career and how he’s become a cornerstone building block for the Magic.

In 54 games, the 6-foot-4, 209-pound Fultz has been the dynamic point guard that the Magic have sought for years. Using his size, quickness, elite dribbling abilities and underrated vision, Fultz has averaged 11.9 points, 5.0 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.3 steals thus far. Already, he’s had five 20-point scoring efforts and three double-digit assist nights, while setting new career highs in scoring (25 points on Jan. 6 against Brooklyn), rebounding (11 boards on Jan. 15 at L.A. Lakers), assists (14 on Feb. 3 at Charlotte) and steals (six on Jan. 3 versus Miami).

The numbers are even more eye-popping when considering that doctors weren’t allowing Fultz to shoot from beyond the free throw line until late July because of his shoulder issues. His outside shot (27 percent from 3-point range) is still very much a work in progress, but the Magic are more confident than ever that Fultz is on a collision course with stardom in the years to come.

The expected return of Augustin in the coming days should only help to support Fultz. Augustin, who has been out since Jan. 15 with ``bone irritation’’ in his left knee, said prior to the break that he hopes to practice with the team on Wednesday and play on Friday against the Mavericks.

The Magic are hopeful that the time off will be good for the 32-year-old Augustin, who is important to the team because of the perimeter shooting and play-making that he provides. His numbers for this season (10.7 points and 4.7 assists on 39.3 percent shooting overall and 34.6 percent accuracy from 3-point range) are down a bit from last season (11.7 points and 5.3 assists on 47 percent shooting overall and 42.1 percent accuracy from 3-point range), but a strong finish from Augustin would go a long way toward helping the Magic become a more potent and consistent team.

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.

Get Off The Bench. Get Into the Game. VOTE.

Prepare now to vote in the general election this November.

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