Fultz Misses Lakers Game With Stomach Virus

by John Denton

ORLANDO – While the Orlando Magic got some encouraging news on the injury front on Wednesday regarding all-star center Nikola Vucevic and key reserve Al-Farouq Aminu, they also lost starting point guard Markelle Fultz to a stomach virus.

Vucevic, who has been out since Nov. 20 with a lateral sprain in his right ankle, went through the team’s shootaround session fully on Wednesday morning. If all goes well in Thursday’s practice and in Friday morning’s shootaround, Vucevic could return for that night’s home game against the Houston Rockets.

As for Aminu, who missed a sixth straight game on Wednesday because of a meniscus tear in his right knee, he has opted against having surgery in hopes that more rehab will allow him to get back on the court sooner. Under usual circumstances, players are often out 4-6 weeks following surgeries to repair meniscus tears. Aminu, who has sat since Nov. 30, is hoping to be back much sooner.

``It’ll be based on how his knee responds,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said of Aminu’s recovery. ``It gives him a chance to get back sooner.’’

Fultz, the Magic’s starter at point guard for the past 18 games, missed his first game of the season on Wednesday because of a stomach virus. Fultz had one of his best games in Magic pinstripes on Monday in Milwaukee when he contributed 13 points, nine assists and five rebounds. D.J. Augustin, the starter all of last season and in the first five games of this season, returned to the starting lineup on Wednesday.

``We have the depth, but you wouldn’t want to play without Markelle for two weeks, but hopefully it’ll just be one night,’’ Clifford said.

Orlando went into Wednesday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers a respectable 5-4 in the nine games missed by Vucevic, the team’s second-leading scorer (17.1 ppg.) and its leader in rebounding (11.6). The Magic have actually scored better (104.7 compared to 101.9 points per game) and shot the ball better (44.2 percent compared to 42.3 percent) in the nine games without Vucevic than they did in the first 14 games with the center on the floor. However, the team knows full well that it is a much more potent squad with their all-star center manning the middle.

On Monday, Vucevic indicated that he still has occasional pain in his ankle with certain movements, but he is hopeful of getting back on the court as soon as possible.

``Since the injury happened, I made progress each day,’’ Vucevic said. ``That’s what you want. It’s getting better and I don’t expect any setbacks when I wake up and it’ll be fine. I’ll just take it day by day, do more and more and see how long it takes before I’m back.’’

VOGEL RETURNS TO ORLANDO: Though his two seasons as head coach in Orlando were rocky, Frank Vogel contends now that those experiences better prepared him for today’s small-ball tactics in the NBA.

Now the head coach of the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers, Vogel returned to the Amway Center on Wednesday for the first time since he was let go by the Magic following the 2018 NBA season. Led by the stellar play of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Vogel’s Lakers came into Wednesday at 21-3.

In Orlando, Vogel never had much success with a misaligned roster that featured Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo alongside of Vucevic and Aaron Gordon – especially at a time when the rest of the NBA was shifting to more perimeter-based players. Vogel’s two Magic teams went 29-53 in 2016-17 and 25-57 in 2017-18.

``It was sort of the transition of the league, going to a spread-five era and (using a lot) of my defenses in Indiana, we had to break a lot of those rules to adapt to the modern NBA,’’ Vogel said. ``During those two years (in Orlando), I definitely did learn a lot about the new game, and I evolved my offensive and defensive systems, quite frankly.’’

Just as Magic players Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross and Gordon professed to being happy for Vogel’s success with the Lakers, he said he found himself rooting for Orlando last season during the franchise’s run to the playoffs.

``That makes me proud because the relationships that you build with a team when you’re with them a couple of years, that’s what you take away and those are the things that are the most valuable,’’ Vogel said. ``I reciprocate their feelings and I pull for those (Magic) guys, all the guys over there that I coached. I root for those guys to do well – certainly not (Wednesday) – but I value those relationships, for sure.’’

DIFFICULT DUO: In a matter of about 50 hours, the Magic took on the beasts from the East, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the best from the West, the Los Angeles Lakers this week. The Bucks, who are leading the East, came into Monday’s game with a 20-3 record and a 14-game winning streak, while the Lakers came into Wednesday with a 21-3 mark and streaks of four straight victories and wins in 14 of the past 15 games.

According to SportsRadar, the Magic’s consecutive games against NBA powers made for the second-most difficult two-game stretch in their 31-year history based on the winning percentages of the opposition. The combined winning percentages of the Bucks and Lakers at the time of the Magic playing them (.872, 41-6) makes it their second-most difficult set of games, according to SportsRadar. The toughest two-game stretch in Orlando history (minimum 20 games played) was Dec. 23 and 25, 2010 when it played San Antonio (25-3) and Boston (23-4), who combined for a 48-7 record and an .873 winning percentage.

As if facing the Bucks and Lakers wasn’t difficult enough, the Magic host James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets on Friday before departing on their first trip of the season that will include a stop on the West Coast.

``That’s the NBA, though, and you have to be ready for the best teams on any given night,’’ Magic guard Evan Fournier said. ``Next game (after Wednesday) is Houston, which I think is third in the West. It’s a tough stretch and it’s definitely challenging, but it’s fun to play the best teams. So, I’m looking forward to playing the Lakers tonight.’’

CLIFFORD’S PERSPECTIVE ON HOWARD: Whereas many Magic fans are familiar with the game of center Dwight Howard from his time in Orlando from 2004-12, Clifford has had the perspective of seeing Howard at various times throughout his 16-year playing career.

Clifford was a part of Stan Van Gundy’s coaching staff in Orlando from 2007-12, when Howard was one of the most dominant forces in the NBA while driving Orlando to the 2009 NBA Finals and the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals.

``Stan (Van Gundy) will tell you, Dwight is one of the smartest players – in terms of coverages – that I’ve ever been around,’’ Clifford said. ``If he could move like when he was (dominant) … there were nights when you would drive home and say, `What this guy is doing is incredible.’ He dominated the paint no matter who he was playing. A lot of it was he was super smart and Stan knew how to utilize his strengths at both ends.’’

Clifford spent the 2012-13 season as an assistant coach with the Lakers – Howard’s first season after leaving the Magic. Clifford moved on and became the head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets from 2013-18. One of Howard’s many stops after leaving the Magic was in Charlotte where he averaged 16.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 81 games while playing for Clifford as a head coach.

``I’m happy for him,’’ Clifford said. ``If you hadn’t been around him when he got older, people have no idea how much work he’s put in just to go out there and play. You’re talking about a guy who has had a really bad knee, major back surgery and the really bad groin (injury) last year. But when you see him, he’s thin, he does a ton of extra stretching and lifting, and he eats great. He appreciates the NBA and it’s important to him to be able to keep playing. That’s one thing I saw in Charlotte – I appreciated everything that he had to do just to play every night.’’

Howard remains Orlando’s all-time leader in scoring (11,435), rebounding (8,072), blocked shots (1,344) and minutes played (22,471). Howard, who turned 34 years old last week, is averaging 7.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots while shooting 74.2 percent from the field in 24 games off the bench this season for the Lakers.

UP NEXT: Orlando’s stretch of games against stellar competition continues on Friday when it hosts James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets. The Magic split two games with the Rockets last season by winning in Orlando and losing in Houston.

Orlando gave Houston superstar James Harden fits last season with the combination of Fournier and Aaron Gordon on him defensively. Throughout his career, Harden has played 18 games against the Magic and has averaged 24.8 points, but he’s shot just 45 percent from the floor and 26.9 percent from 3-point range.

Westbrook, long a Magic killer while playing for Oklahoma City, is in his first season with the Rockets. In 21 career games against the Magic, Westbrook has averaged 24.3 points, 9.0 assists and 8.9 rebounds.

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.

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