It Was This Time Last Season Magic Turned a Corner

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Before the season-turning run for the ages that eventually vaulted the Orlando Magic into the playoffs last spring there was the oft-overlooked pre-All-Star break mini-run that made the postseason even possible in the first place.

Now, in an unenviable position very similar to the one that they found themselves in this time last year, the Magic hope to string together another similar pre-All-Star break run that will better their playoff positioning.

That mission begins on Saturday when the rested Magic (21-27) face the rival Miami Heat (32-15) at the Amway Center. Saturday’s 7 p.m. game is just the start of a stretch of seven games in 12 nights for Orlando before it breaks for the NBA All-Star Game. The Magic remember this stretch as a time when its season pivoted last season and could possibly do the same thing again this season.

``These are the games that you want because some teams have already called it and are already in All-Star mode, going in and out of the All-Star break,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon following his team’s practice on Friday. ``We’ve got to not fall into that mode and play the way that we know how to play.’’

A season ago, the Magic limped into Jan. 31 at 20-31, and that night they trailed the Indiana Pacers by four at the end of the third period. However, something clicked in that fourth quarter – namely shooting guard Terrence Ross, who scored 13 of his 30 in the final period – and the Magic rallied for a 107-100 victory. For whatever reason, that victory sparked a critical 7-1 stretch prior to the break for the NBA All-Star Game – including a particularly dominant run where the Magic won four straight games by at least 20 points.

The Magic are a different team than the one they were a year ago, largely because of the knee injuries to key contributors Jonathan Isaac (knee sprain and a bone bruise in his left knee) and D.J. Augustin (bone irritation in his left knee). Isaac could be lost for the season, while Augustin continues to rehabilitate his knee in hopes of returning in a matter of weeks. Even without those players available, the Magic are hopeful that following a four-day break to regroup and recharge that they can get their season back on track.

``It’s hard to compare different years, but we know that the period right before the All-Star break is a good time to get something going, go into the break feeling positive and then come back on a good note,’’ Magic center Nikola Vucevic said. ``We did that last year and it helped us out tremendously. That stretch right before the break gave us hope and made us feel better about the year.

``So, for sure, we can take advantage of this stretch because a lot of people (on other teams) are banged up, they have played a lot of games and everybody is looking forward to (the break),’’ Vucevic added. ``But if we have the right mental approach, we can take advantage of this stretch and get some good wins.’’

Magic coach Steve Clifford agreed with Vucevic that the stretch just before the break for the All-Star Game last season played a major role in the team’s late-season push to the playoffs. To do that again, the Magic must get back to being the defensively dominant team that it was over the final 31 games of last season when it ranked first in the NBA in several key defensive categories.

Defense was a major issue in Orlando’s grueling stretch prior to getting the past four days off from games. Playing shorthanded because of injuries and playing 18 games in a 33-night stretch, the Magic saw some major slippage on the defensive end of the floor. As a result, the Magic dropped six of seven games – including a humbling 113-92 defeat in Miami on Monday. Defense is the top area of focus, Clifford said, because without improved play on that end of the floor there will be no second-half surge this time around.

``It’s all about the progress that you can make and it’s always just about playing better,’’ said Clifford, who dined with former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy and picked his brain for X-and-O and schematic ideas. ``People want to talk about all these things (such as intangibles) … but it’s all about execution, purpose of play and attention to details. That’s what our league is all about.

``(The pre-All-Star break stretch last season) gave us momentum and confidence,’’ Clifford said. ``We won in Milwaukee, in Atlanta on a back-to-back, which is really difficult to do, in New Orleans and then we came home and won before the All-Star break. We played good teams and won on the road, which is not easy to do, and it really helped us.’’

Unlike last season when the Magic remained mostly injury-free – their top six rotational players all appeared in at least 78 games – injuries have hit the team hard this season and caused it to shuffle lineups almost constantly. Gordon, who has missed six games this season with ankle, Achilles’ tendon and calf soreness, feels that the yo-yoing of Orlando’s regular rotations has played a major role in the team’s spotty play to this point.

However, Gordon feels that a Magic team getting healthier now could be poised to put together its best stretch of basketball of the season – starting on Saturday against a Miami team that it has split two games against thus far.

``I think we definitely let it slip a little bit, but we have the talent, the personnel and the staff – we have everything we need to be a team that’s successful in this league,’’ said Gordon, who will be matched up with Miami all-star guard Jimmy Butler again on Saturday night. ``It’s just about the buy in, getting everybody to buy in, and then we’ll go from there.

``We’ve got to get it clicking,’’ Gordon continued. ``I don’t feel like we’ve clicked pretty much all year. We’ve shown flashes, but now it’s time to put it together.’’

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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