Magic Leadership Commend NBA for Decision to Suspend Play

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Considering the manner that the Orlando Magic had been playing of late, and with the string of games expected to come against foes with losing records, it only seemed logical that they would put together a push for .500 and the coveted seventh seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

Alas, the Magic’s push will now have to wait, and likely wait a month or more, according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

Speaking with TNT on Thursday night after the NBA made the landmark decision to suspend its season in an effort to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, Silver said ``this hiatus will be most likely at least 30 days.’’ Silver said that while he wished he could be more specific and concrete in setting the schedule to come, things are obviously still very fluid because of the very nature of a pandemic such as coronavirus and COVID-19. The 30-day timeframe, Silver said, was set in an effort to give direction to teams and fans of the time off to come.

While that time away from basketball comes at a time when the 30-35 Magic – winners of three straight, six of nine and eight of 12 – were playing their best basketball of the season, CEO Alex Martins said on Thursday that the league absolutely did the right thing in acting as swiftly as it did in trying to protect players, coaches and fans from the rapidly spreading pandemic.

``The NBA always takes a leadership position when it comes to major social issues in our country, and this is no different,’’ Martins said. ``The NBA always does the right thing, in simple terms.

``Hopefully everyone does take the situation seriously,’’ added Martins, who refused to speculate as to whether the NBA season could be ended by this threat. ``All of the experts are saying the same thing – the best way to slow this down is for us to not gather in large groups. If we can focus on that and take care of each other and practice our healthy habits, hopefully it will be a short-term situation that we have to deal with.’’

Orlando, who saw Thursday’s home game against the Chicago Bulls wiped out by the season suspension, was originally scheduled to play 10 of its final 17 regular-season games at the Amway Center. The Magic were originally in line to play six straight games against foes with losing records (Bulls, Hornets, Pistons, Cavaliers, Kings, Nets). Not only are they 10-1 against those six teams this season, but they are 23-9 against foes with losing records.

Their hope, of course, was to use that stretch to eventually overtake the Brooklyn Nets for the East’s coveted No. 7 seed. As the teams currently sit, the eighth-seeded Magic have a comfortable lead for the final playoff spot, but they are a half-game back of the seventh-seeded Nets. Orlando is 2-0 this season against Brooklyn and the two teams were originally scheduled to play twice more – once at the Barclays Center (March 23) and once at the Amway Center (March 27). Time will ultimately tell if those games are played.

On the one hand, the necessary stoppage of the season couldn’t have come at a worse time for a Magic team that seemed to have finally figured out the offensive issues that troubled them greatly early on. Over their past 12 games – eight of them victories – a Magic team that ranked in the NBA’s bottom five in most major offensive statistical categories this season had shot up to first in the NBA in scoring (120.8), first in assists per game (32.1), first in field goal makes per game (45.1), second in field goal percentage (48.6 percent) and 13thin 3-point percentage (37 percent).

Since Feb. 9, three Magic players – Nikola Vucevic (21.8 points per game), Terrence Ross (20.7) and Evan Fournier (20.2) – had averaged at least 20 points a game, while Aaron Gordon (17.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists) and Markelle Fultz (13.7 points and 7.0 assists on 52.2 percent shooting) were at their do-everything best and key reserves Michael Carter-Williams (8.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists) and D.J. Augustin (9.4 points and 3.9 assists) had started to play significantly better. Of course, the Magic’s stellar 12-game run coincided with the introduction of forward James Ennis III, who was acquired in a Feb. 6 trade deadline deal with the Philadelphia 76ers. In 12 games with the Magic – the past 10 as a starter – Ennis had given Orlando better offensive spacing and more defensive versatility and toughness while he had averaged 6.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.1 assists.

Though he hated seeing the suspension come at a time when his Magic had finally hit their stride, head coach Steve Clifford wholeheartedly agreed with the move made by the NBA to protect players, coaches and fans from the coronavirus. He said he will take his direction about when and if the team can return to practice from the NBA.

``Basketball is secondary, and this is problem for the country and the whole world, and health is first,’’ Clifford said. ``I think our players would agree with that, too. So, that’s the mindset we should all have.’’

If the suspension of the season lasts a month or more and play ultimately resumes in mid-April, the time off could give the Magic a better chance of getting key injured players Jonathan Isaac (left knee sprain) and Fournier (right elbow sprain) back healthy for the stretch run of the regular season and/or playoffs.

Isaac, who has been out since Jan. 1, has shed the cast and crutches he used for six weeks and he’s slowly started working his way back into light basketball activities while wearing a knee brace. At the time of his injury, Isaac was one of just two players in the NBA ranked in the top 15 in both blocked shots and steals. In 32 games – all starts – Isaac averaged 12 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.44 blocks and 1.56 steals a night. This season, the third-year pro set new career highs for points (25 at Indiana on Nov. 23), rebounds (13 at Toronto on Nov. 20), steals (seven at Milwaukee on Dec. 28) and blocked shots (six at Dallas on Nov. 6).

Said Isaac recently, referring to his timetable of wanting to get back to action as soon as possible: ``I want to be back right now. The goal is that I want to be back right now, so that keeps me pushing and taking care of it day by day. … I’m not completely sure (about playing again this season). I just want to continue to be wise, listen to the coaching staff and what management is thinking and then move accordingly.’’

Fournier, Orlando’s second-leading scorer on the season, suffered a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow last week when he dived for a ball and landed on his right arm. Though he stayed in that game in Miami, played 31 minutes and scored 17 points, he missed the next three games because of pain, swelling and stiffness in the elbow. While there is no firm timetable on Fournier’s return from injury, it might be useful to note that all-star guard Jimmy Butler suffered a similar injury on March 1, 2015 while playing for the Bulls and he was forced to miss 22 days of action before returning fully.

Whether the break from action proves to be good or bad for the Magic, it was still entirely necessary, President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. With much of the world dealing with the health crisis, Weltman said basketball – and all sports, for that matter – will rightly take a back seat.

Still, though, Weltman admitted that it was ``jarring’’ to have the season stopped so abruptly just as the Magic were seemingly poised to make another stellar late-season run. Last spring, Orlando went 22-9 down the stretch and pushed its way into the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Weltman’s hope, of course, is that the Magic will be able to pick back up where they left off once the moratorium is ended and push their way into the playoffs for a second straight season.

``It is jarring because it’s bigger than basketball,’’ Weltman said of the international health crisis that abruptly ended the season. ``We all hear these bits of news and they come across our phones and on TV and the first thing you think of is the safety of your family and those around you. For us, those are our players and our fans. So, we’re all waking up to a somewhat new reality today and we have to, first and foremost, care about the health and safety of those around us. That’s framing everything that we talk about today.’’

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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