ORLANDO – From the beasts in the East to the best in the West, the Orlando Magic will be facing the top competition that the NBA has to offer in about a 50-hour timeframe from Monday night through Wednesday.
Things don’t get much more difficult in today’s NBA than doing battle with the Milwaukee Bucks (21-3) and the Los Angeles Lakers (21-3) consecutively and tangling with superstars Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Anthony Davis in such a short period of time.
Sprinkle in Orlando reappearances by Dwight Howard and head coach Frank Vogel on Wednesday when the Magic (11-12) host the Lakers, and emotions are sure to be running hot at the Amway Center.
Bring it on, says a Magic team that stood toe to toe with the historically dominant Bucks for much of Monday and is eager to test itself on Wednesday against a Lakers’ squad that’s been equally as impressive thus far.
``I’m sure it’ll present a ton of challenges (facing the Lakers), but that��s kind of what we play for – to play against the best players in the world,’’ Magic guard Terrence Ross said confidently after his 23-point, four 3-pointer effort on Monday.
With sentiments still running hot after Orlando’s 110-101 loss to the Bucks in Milwaukee, Magic guard Evan Fournier said there will be plenty of pride on the line in trying to protect homecourt against the Lakers. Not only has James, Davis, Howard and Co. won four in a row and 14 of 15, they are 11-1 on the road this season with that one defeat coming in their own building when the rival L.A. Clippers were designated as the home team.
``Well, it’s going to be fun because (the Lakers) are the best team in the West, they have one of the biggest fanbases in the NBA and they only come (to Orlando) once a year, so we’re going to see a lot of purple and yellow at the Amway,’’ said Fournier, who had 26 points and four more 3-pointers on Monday. ``It’s always a nice atmosphere (with the Lakers in Orlando), so it should be fun. We’ve got to show up and bring our A-game to make it even better.’’
The star power presented by the dynamic duo of James (25.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 10.8 assists) and Davis (27.2 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.65 blocks) pushes the Orlando returns of Howard and Vogel further down the marquee.
Howard, the first pick of the 2004 NBA Draft by Orlando and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year award winner while leading the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals and the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals, has enjoyed a solid bounce-back season in his second stint with the Lakers. The 6-foot-10 center, who still ranks first in scoring (11,435), rebounding (8,072), blocked shots (1,344) and minutes played (22,471) in Magic history, 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.
As for Vogel, his time with the Magic from 2016-18 wasn’t nearly as storied. Orlando looked to Vogel to steady the franchise following former head coach Scott Skiles’ stunning resignation in 2016, but he never had much success with a misaligned roster that featured Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo alongside of Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Fournier. Vogel’s two Magic teams went 29-53 in 2016-17 and 25-57 in 2017-18. His .329 winning percentage (54-110) is the second worst in Magic history among full-time head coaches and it ranks ahead of only Jacque Vaughn’s .269 winning percentage (58-158 from 2012-15).
``We’ve had a lot of coaches here and we’ve played against them all a lot,’’ said Fournier, who has played for five head coaches in his six seasons with the Magic. ``We’re going to play against Frank and I’m sure he’s going to want to kick our ass real bad. So, we’ve got to be ready.’’
Vogel’s Lakers have been a mostly unstoppable force this season after adding Davis to pair with the versatile talents of James. In their three previous games, the Lakers scored 142 points at home against Minnesota, 136 points in Portland and 121 in Utah – all wins. The Lakers rank eighth in the NBA in scoring at 114.5 points per game.
Ross, for one, said he’s thrilled that Vogel has been able to find so much success again after the likable head coach mostly fell flat in Orlando.
``I mean, it’ll be cool,’’ Ross said of facing Vogel, who was out of the NBA last season. ``It’ll be good seeing him and I’m happy for his success. That’s always good to see.’’
What wasn’t good to see on Monday, Magic coach Steve Clifford stressed, was Milwaukee outrebounding Orlando 54-44. Their 10 offensive rebounds led to 16 second-chance points. Orlando’s margin for error against elite teams is simply too narrow for it to win with deficiencies such as that, Clifford said.
``The bigger thing is – and I told (the players) this in there (in the locker room) – there’s got to be some physicality,’’ Clifford said late Monday night. ``We haven’t rebounded now in the last five or six games, and you’re not going to win like that. There are certain things that you can withstand, but we’re playing a different level of competition here from now until Christmas. We’ve got to rebound and defend every night and we didn’t do that (on Monday).’’
That certainly couldn’t be said for Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, who strengthened his lead as NBA’s top shot-blocker (2.86 a game) with five more rejections on Monday. He blocked Milwaukee’s first two shots of the game, three of the first seven and had four in the first quarter alone – just two shy of Howard’s 2010 franchise record for blocks in a quarter with six.
In the past two games along, the 6-foot-10 Isaac has stuffed nine shots, propelling him beyond Los Angeles’ Davis (2.65) among the league leaders.
Now, two nights after doing battle with Milwaukee’s Antetokounmpo, Isaac with find himself opposite of Davis on Wednesday at the Amway Center in what figures to be an especially charged environment.
``I think it’s the same thing (facing L.A as playing Milwaukee) – we show up, we put our best foot forward, we give attention to the game plan and we fight,’’ Isaac said. ``We’ve got to show up. I know that’s my mindset, and I think it will be everybody else’s mindset. We’ve got to show up, like we did (on Monday in Milwaukee), but we’ve got to find a way to pull it out.’’
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