Magic Hope to Be More Consistent in Second Half of Season

Magic had several impressive wins and several frustrating losses during first half of season
by John Denton

CHARLOTTE – A few days earlier, as the Orlando Magic approached the official midpoint of their 82-game regular season, shooting guard Evan Fournier summed up in just a few sentences what has been so remarkably exhilarating and downright confounding about his injury-ravaged, but resilient team.

``Our problem, I think, is us not being consistent enough,’’ surmised Fournier, pointing to the fact that while the Magic have impressively topped the 76ers (twice) and Lakers, they have also lost to the Hawks (twice), Suns and Warriors. ``When we are consistent, it is very satisfying to see how well we defend, how focused we are and how we have the right intensity. On the other side, what is disappointing is that we aren’t bringing that focus every night.’’

Then, as if they were trying to prove Fournier’s point, the Magic went out over the next few days and once again proved themselves to be consistently inconsistent. After breathing life into their longest road trip of the season with a thrilling defeat of LeBron James and the steamrolling Los Angeles Lakers, the Magic proceeded to fall flat – both physically and emotionally – in ensuing losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors.

Losing to Kawhi Leonard and the almost comically deep and potent Clippers on the second night of a back-to-back set of games certainly is no basketball sin. But doing so on Saturday to the artists formerly known as the three-time World Champion Golden State Warriors, well that was unconscionable considering what was at stake for the Magic, head coach Steve Clifford ranted.

Instead of heading into Monday’s 5 p.m. game in Charlotte with a chance to go an impressive 4-2 on their longest trip of the season, the Magic can do no better now than 3-3.

``This was an opportunity to turn a good road trip into a great one,’’ Magic forward Aaron Gordon said in his team’s somber locker room following Saturday’s 109-95 loss to a Golden State team that came into the game with more consecutive losses (10) than overall victories on the season (nine). ``We’ve still got an opportunity to split, which would be good. But we could have turned it into a great road trip, and we let a good opportunity to slip away.’’

Undoubtedly, injuries have played a major role in the Magic’s highly erratic ups and downs thus far. Knee injuries to Jonathan Isaac, Al-Farouq Aminu and D.J. Augustin have robbed the Magic of their best defender, two of their most sage veterans and whatever power forward depth they started with at the beginning of the season. Instead, the Magic have been forced to try to win of late with converted center Khem Birch and converted small forward Wes Iwundu playing out of position, Fournier playing through illness and quad soreness and a bench that includes a 10-day signee (Gary Clark) and a two-way player (B.J. Johnson).

Predictably, the results have been all over the board.

Prior to faltering on Saturday in downtown San Francisco at the new Chase Center, Clifford had glowing words for the fight of his team in the face of the myriad of injuries that it has faced.

``I think we’ve hung in there,’’ Clifford said prior to his team rallying to defeat Sacramento in the final seconds earlier in the week. ``We haven’t had good health, and obviously we’re playing guys at positions that we wouldn’t even have thought of in training camp and they’re doing a good job. Now it’s just a question of a., being consistent and b., how can we emerge and how can we make progress over the next 42 games.’’

That number is now down 39 for the 20-23 Magic, who face the 15-29 Hornets on Monday. Whereas Charlotte has lost six straight and eight of 10, it should have a significant rest advantage considering that it hasn’t played since Wednesday. Not long after Monday’s game, the Hornets leave for France where they will play the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks in the inaugural NBA Paris Game 2020.

As for Orlando, a fuming Clifford said late Saturday that his team will have its work cut out for itself on Monday in Charlotte after spending most of Sunday flying across the country and trying to adjust to the three-hour time difference. Monday’s afternoon game, Clifford said, is a part of a stretch of games that should test the Magic’s mettle in every way possible.

``One of the steps we have to take is, we have to have expectations and understand what’s ahead – that’s what the league is all about,’’ Clifford said minutes after the loss to the Warriors. ``We’re in a brutal stretch here with nine (games) in 15 nights, and frankly, the Charlotte game is going to be difficult because of the travel and the schedule, which to me is ridiculous. Then, we go home for OKC, Boston, the Clippers and Miami on a back-to-back. A mature player and mature team understands that. Whether we would have won tonight or not, you sure as hell don’t come out with an effort like that.’’

One effort that Clifford and the Magic had to like was that of blossoming young point guard Markelle Fultz, who almost single-handedly kept Orlando within striking distance of the Warriors on Saturday. Not only did Fultz come within two points of tying his career high with 23 on Saturday, he made a coolly efficient 10 of 14 shots and delivered a jaw-dropping dunk late in the first half that spoke volumes about his potential as a go-to player in the future.

That effort came just days after the 21-year-old Fultz carved up the Lakers in the second triple-double performance of his career. His 21-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist night not only elicited high praise from L.A.’s James – someone Fultz considers to be a mentor – it led Clifford into an explanation about how Fultz has been able to exceed outside expectations in what is basically his rookie season in the NBA.

``His make-up is why things are going so well,’’ Clifford said of Fultz’s mature and professional approach to his first season as a consistent starter in the NBA. ``I want to say this the right way … the younger players in our league have become more and more challenging because they’re younger and have less experiences. Say, even 10 years ago, the younger guys got into the league after they had performed well in college. Now, frankly, you get a lot of guys who haven’t even played well except in AAU, yet they want to be treated as if they have.

``(Fultz) is the opposite of that,’’ Clifford stressed. ``He understands that the NBA is about performing and you’re going to get what you earn. He’s a throwback.’’

Clifford rarely says anything without a purpose behind it, and undoubtedly, he would like to see several more players on this Magic team adopt a similar sort of workmanlike effort to the one that Fultz has displayed. Gordon, for one, is a player who Clifford considers to be an X-factor for the Magic what with his abilities to dramatically affect games on both ends of the floor.

Last season, consistency didn’t come for the Magic until late January. As late as Jan. 31 of late season, Orlando limped along at a disappointing 20-31 and hoped that something would click to turn its season around. Ultimately, the Magic rallied to beat the Indiana Pacers and started a 22-9 stretch that got them to the Eastern Conference playoffs.

For now, the Magic are still waiting for that moment that will spur them into playing their most consistent basketball.

``Every team does it, you need somebody (to elevate their play), something has to happen, and people have to emerge,’’ Clifford said of a potential spark for the Magic. ``Last year, if you look at it, after the all-star break, Jonathan Isaac shot 38.5 (percent) from 3 and that makes a big difference. One made three a game by one guy – three points is a lot in this league. There are just a lot of ways that you can do it and that’s what we have to figure out.’’

As for Fournier, he’s figured out that the Magic must be more professional in their preparation and approach so as to elicit the team’s best play. After all, Fournier said, the Magic are going to have a hard time ever being successful if they don’t play their best on a nightly basis.

``We have to understand, for us as a team, we have to bring it every night,’’ said Fournier, a veteran of eight NBA seasons – the last six coming in Orlando. ``We have a small margin for error, so we have to be disciplined every night.’’

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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