Magic Can Feel Support From Fans Around Them on Eve of Season Opener

by John Denton

ORLANDO – In the minutes prior to the Orlando Magic’s final practice before Wednesday night’s regular-season opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers, head coach Steve Clifford started into a story about Kenyan runner Elidu Kipchoge, who recently became the first person to complete a marathon in less than two hours.

Understandably, Magic players had to be confused and wondering how Clifford was going to tie in Kipchoge’s remarkable feat of running 26.2 miles in one hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds into prepping for the first of 82 NBA games.

Soon, Clifford revealed the method to his madness.

``I can’t say the guy’s name, but I just gave them the time of (Kipchoge), who ran the marathon in 1:59.40, which I believe is like four minutes and 31 seconds a mile,’’ Clifford recalled. ``(Former NBA coaches) Larry Brown used to always tell (players) this and (former NBA coach) Jeff (Van Gundy) used to tell our teams when I worked for him, `Players like to say that the NBA is a marathon and not a sprint.’ Well, if you want to win the big marathons you sprint for 26 miles. That’s what I’m hoping we’ll do.’’

The NBA’s marathon-like regular season finally gets underway on Wednesday (tip time: 7 p.m., TV: Fox Sports Florida) and that moment can’t come soon enough for a Magic team looking to pick up where it left off last season and start quickly. Orlando is coming off a 42-40 season where it closed with a 22-9 burst and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2012. The Magic followed that up by re-signing key free agents Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross and incorporated newcomers Markelle Fultz (back from injury) and Al-Farouq Aminu (signed in free agency). Now, they feel that they have all of the pieces in place to craft a special season.

Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic, said the excitement surrounding the team has been palatable for months and he’s eager to see if Orlando can live up to its own lofty expectations.

``You could feel the excitement around the building and in the city (late last season) and I think it carried over through the summer and people are very excited,’’ said Vucevic, who became an all-star for the first time last season while joining Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard as the only Magic players to ever average at least 20 points and 12 rebounds in a season. ``The fans can’t wait to start the season and we feel the same way.’’

National media opinions widely vary in just how good they think the Magic can be in the season ahead. Orlando had the greatest win-improvement total (plus-17) in the NBA last season but doing something even remotely similar this season might prove difficult.

Over the summer, ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus computer metrics predicted that the Magic would win 46 games and that they have a 93 percent chance to return to the playoffs. For whatever reason, those odds have come down in recent weeks as Sports Illustrated has the mostly overlooked Magic at No. 18 overall and No. 6 in the East in their power poll, while ESPN has them slotted at 18th overall and eighth in the East. Then, there’s also this: A Magic team that was one of the NBA’s feel-good stories last season was slotted for just one appearance on national TV appearance (Jan. 27, at Miami) in the season ahead.

Ross, who believed so strongly in the direction of the Magic that he re-signed with the franchise despite getting numerous free-agent offers from other teams, believes Orlando could be about to start a long run of success. He said the confidence of the Magic is at a completely different level now compared to this time a year ago because of the continuity on the roster and belief built during last spring’s stirring run to the playoffs.

``Everybody’s so happy that we went to the playoffs, but that’s such a small step in the direction that we’re trying to go,’’ Ross said of last season. ``We can have way more fun times ahead of us, but it just takes the time and work. I think we could start something special here and go to the playoffs the next few years. We’re all really looking forward to that, but it’s just about trying to figure out how we can do this consistently.’’

Playing consistently well over the full 82-game season is a mission of the Magic’s, especially after their journey to the playoffs last season was of a topsy-turvy nature and filled with a dizzying number of highs and lows. The Magic limped into Jan. 31 at 20-31 before inexplicably catching fire when Ross led them to one of their 11 fourth-quarter wins in a defeat of the Indiana Pacers.

Starting with that otherwise sleepy Thursday night back in January, Orlando won seven of its next eight before breaking for the NBA All-Star Game. They would go on to win 22 of the final 31 games – including significant wins against Golden State, Boston, Philadelphia, Indiana (twice) and Miami – to snap the franchise’s longest playoff drought in its history at six seasons.

The fact that the Magic had to deliver time and again in the clutch and play their way into the postseason helped to cultivate a confidence in the squad, Clifford said. And the manner with how the Magic dominated – ranking first in the NBA in defensive rating and eighth in offensive rating over those final 31 games – showed the squad’s massive potential.

``They know we grew to a point to where, if we played well, we had a chance to win every night,’’ Clifford recalled. ``This (current) team is good enough to do the same thing.’’

Undoubtedly, the current version of the Magic will feature the many talents of Vucevic, the shooting of Evan Fournier, D.J. Augustin and Ross and the offensive/defensive versatility of ultra-athletic forwards Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac. That hasn’t changed from last season, when most of those players stayed healthy for the most part and crafted the finest all-around performances of their careers.

The biggest change in the Magic, however, has been the widely acclaimed arrival of Fultz, the No. 1 pick of the 2017 NBA Draft who saw the first two seasons of his career ruined by a nerve and blood vessel malady in his right shoulder. The Magic believed enough in Fultz’s potential that they traded for him last February and they then walked with him through the tedious process of rehabilitating his shoulder back to full strength.

Healthy and happy again, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Fultz offered up flashes of his dynamic potential in the preseason by averaging 6.7 points, 4.0 assists and 1.8 steals in 19.9 minutes a night over six exhibition games.

While some have wondered if the 21-year-old Fultz can be the dynamic penetrator and playmaker the Magic need to elevate their offense to another level, Fultz is keeping things much simpler. For him, there is tremendous satisfaction in being back game ready for his first NBA action since Nov. 19 of 2018 when he played for the Philadelphia 76ers.

``I’m extremely excited. The season is here, the NBA is back and I’m just happy to be a part of it and be with this team that’s put in a lot of work,’’ said Fultz, who dribble penetration and defensive abilities as a disruptor figure to factor heavily into the Magic’s plan of attack. ``I made it through preseason and now the next step for me is opening night, especially (excited) to be at home and in front of our crowd.’’

Vucevic, the Magic’s leader last season in scoring and rebounder, said when he thinks back to the specialness of last season, he’s always reminded of the electric atmosphere inside the Amway Center as Orlando returned to contender status. Vucevic endured six seasons of rebuilding with the Magic from 2012-18, wondering if he would ever be able to bring winning basketball back to Orlando.

Last spring, the 7-foot center and the Magic got a taste of how sweet winning can be. Now, they are hungry for more success to electrify their fans once again.

``Almost anywhere you go, I have people approaching me and telling me that they are excited for the season,’’ Vucevic said. ``I even had some people who did work on my house and they were like, `Hey, man, hopefully you have a great season, we’re excited and we’re going to be there.’ I’ve had some people come up to me (and say), `I gave up my season tickets, but we got them back again.’ All of those things are great to hear because it lets you know that you have the support of your city and the fans. It has a huge impact on us as players and the way we can pay them back is by winning games.’’

Winning games, especially early in the season, could come down to the Magic benefitting greatly from the continuity on their roster and with the same leadership in place with the front-office and head coach spots. Clifford, who plans to stick to a relatively tight nine-man rotation on Wednesday, feels the Magic are far ahead of where they were heading into last season because of the familiarity between he and the 12 returning players.

And because there is a firm foundation in place and an established relationship between the players and their head coach already existing, Clifford can regale the team with stories of runners completing marathons in less than two hours and relate it to the need for urgency over an entire 82-game regular season. Vucevic, for one, appreciated the analogy used by the coach to try and ramp up his team for Wednesday’s opener.

``Each game is a sprint and you have to approach each one as being important and we have to understand that,’’ Vucevic said. ``There are no games that we can take off and Game 1 is just as important as Game 50 or Game 80, especially for us because we’re trying to do something and take another step forward. So, that starts from the beginning. We’re not one of those teams that has a lot of superstar players and eventually everything will click for them. We have to start from the beginning, from Game 1 be ready and believe that we are.’’

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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