Magic Now Must Find Way to Overcome Injuries to Vucevic and Gordon

by John Denton

INDIANAPOLIS – Career years from Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross, the blossoming of forward Jonathan Isaac and the emergence of a suffocating defense certainly were reasons for the Orlando Magic’s stirring success last season, but another significant factor leading to the playoff run largely went unspoken.

And there’s a reason for that.

As a general rule, NBA coaches and players don’t like discussing injuries – neither when they are present and dictate success or failure; nor when they are not an issue so as to not upset the good karma they are enjoying at the time.

A season after enjoying a somewhat charmed existence with most of its primary players avoiding major injury troubles, the Magic (6-8) have been forced to confront a new reality: They could be looking at an extended period of time without their best offensive player (Nikola Vucevic) and their top defender (Aaron Gordon) after both suffered ankle injuries on Wednesday.

Clearly, Orlando lost more than just a basketball game on Wednesday when it fell 113-97 to the Toronto Raptors. In what will go down as the worst 3-minute, 23-stretch in recent years, Orlando saw the game slip away from it just as Gordon was landing on the back of a teammate’s leg and Vucevic had his right ankle buckle underneath him on a block attempt.

Sadly for the Magic, the enduring images of the night were a frustrated Gordon checking himself out of the game and Vucevic needing two staffers to help him to his feet and while arduously hobbling to the locker room. The only good news for Orlando was that X-rays on the right ankles of Vucevic and Gordon came back negative, but MRIs to come later on Thursday will ultimately prove the extent of the damage suffered.

Of course, time will tell just how much damage the Magic suffer after losing two of their best players while in the midst of a four-game, nine-night road trip that includes games in Indiana (Saturday), Detroit (Monday) and Cleveland (Wednesday). Veteran guard Evan Fournier tried bringing some perspective to the deflating night even though he was clearly upset by seeing two of his teams from the past six seasons go down.

``I mean, they’re hurt, but not dead,’’ Fournier said. ``We still have lots of games left, and we’re going to fight. When you are playing, you don’t even think about the injuries and stuff; you’re just focused on the job that you have to do and doing the best that you can.

``Obviously, we hate to see the injuries, but it happens and it’s going to happen again,’’ he added. ``Like I said, we just have to adjust, adapt and keep playing.’’

Last season, when the Magic ripped off a 22-9 finish, won 42 games and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2012, they rarely had to adapt or adjust because of injuries. That injury-free continuity, as much as any other factors, played a major role in Orlando’s stirring success.

Last season, the Magic’s top six players – Vucevic (two games), Fournier (one game), Ross (one game), Gordon (four games), D.J. Augustin (one game) and Isaac (seven games) – missed a combined 17 games and only 15 of those came because of injury or illness. Other players, such as Wes Iwundu, Khem Birch and Michael Carter-Williams were available for every game while on the active roster. The only exception was Mo Bamba, who had his rookie season cut short after 47 games because of a stress fracture in his lower leg, but Birch filled in seamlessly as the reserve center the rest of the way.

Now, with Vucevic (sprained right ankle), Gordon (sprained right ankle) and even Carter-Williams (left hip irritation) out indefinitely, Magic players are longing for the injury-free run that the team enjoyed last season.

``This definitely goes with it and it’s a part of the game on any given night,’’ Gordon said of injury issues that teams must often deal with throughout 82-game seasons. ``This (predicament) makes me appreciate the times that I am out there and I’m thankful this is not too bad. I’ll be back soon.’’

The same might not be said for the 7-foot Vucevic, who left Toronto’s ScotiaBank Arena late Wednesday night on crutches and wearing a walking boot over his right foot. Vucevic said he experienced significant swelling in his ankle after he landed awkwardly and had his ankle buckle when he attempted to block a drive down the lane by guard Norman Powell.

``It was really painful when it happened,’’ said Vucevic, the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week who had just started playing his best basketball of the season during a 3-0 Magic run last week. ``I’m not sure if I stepped on (Powell’s) foot or if my leg just got tangled up with his leg, but it felt like my ankle went, stopped and then went all the way. That’s when I really felt it and it was really painful. It was hard for me to put any pressure on it.’’

Gordon echoed many of those same sentiments late Wednesday night as he stared down at a right ankle that was heavily wrapped in tape. He, too, would leave the area in a walking boot and with one crutch.
In the second quarter, he and Bamba went high into the air to try and block a shot, but as Gordon came down with the deflection, his right foot landed on the back of the reserve center’s leg, causing his ankle to roll. Gordon stayed down on the floor for a matter of seconds before slowly walking toward the Magic’s bench to check himself out of the game.

That was hardly Gordon’s first sprained ankle of the season, but it was certainly the most significant.

``This is probably the worst (ankle sprain) of the year, said Gordon, who has averaged 13.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 14 games thus far. ``I rolled my ankles a couple of times this year, but I’ve been able to kind of keep going, but this one is the worst (of the season).’’

While the Magic likely have a suitable replacement for Gordon in veteran forward Al-Farouq Aminu – the team’s biggest offseason addition in free agency – replacing Vucevic might prove to be more problematic. The 7-footer evolved into an all-star last season for the first time in his career while averaging mostly career highs across the board. This season, Vucevic is tied with Fournier for the team lead in scoring (17.1), while also leading the squad in rebounding (11.6), tying for second in assists (3.5) and ranking second in blocked shots (1.1).

The responsibility for replacing Vucevic will fall on the shoulders of Bamba and Birch, players who have more athleticism and defensive prowess, but are much more limited offensively. Birch, a physical force and legitimate lob threat on last spring’s postseason run, started Wednesday’s second half in place of Vucevic and contributed 12 points and four rebounds in 21 minutes. Teammates and coaches continually laud the 6-foot-9, 230-pound Birch for keeping himself ready even while out of the rotation, and he vowed Wednesday night that he is plenty prepared for this opportunity.

``If no one gets hurt, I’m not going to play, so I know the reality and right now I’m not looking at that and I’m just trying to help my team win,’’ said Birch, who has averaged 3.2 points and 2.6 rebounds in 13.2 minutes of the five games he’s appeared in so far. ``I’ve been here (with the Magic) for three years and Orlando is like home to me and they gave me an opportunity and a contract, so I want to pay them back by coming in ready.’’

As for the 7-foot, 230-pound Bamba, he’s been kept on a minutes’ restriction much of the season as the Magic have tried to come up with a plan for him to deal with the lingering effects of the left leg stress fracture that he suffered last January. Not only has Bamba struggled to find his footing on the offensive end of the floor (3.8 points per game on 33.9 percent shooting overall and 23.8 percent accuracy from 3-point range), he’s yet to evolve into the defensive force that the Magic hoped his 7-foot, 10-inch wingspan would allow (4.2 rebounds and 1.0 blocks a game).

Head coach Steve Clifford came to the defense of the 21-year old center on Wednesday night after he had trouble containing Toronto reserve center Chris Boucher (14 points and 11 rebounds), stressing that Bamba has made significant growth – both physically and mentally – from where he was as a rookie.

``What I do is I watch the film every night and (the players) get a tape the next day with the assistants with the things they did good and they did bad, and you look for weekly progress,’’ Clifford said. ``(Bamba) is working hard at it and, like I’ve said, that’s a tough position for a younger guy. Again, you go back and watch the films from a year ago at this time, and he’s a lot better than he was.’’

Another option that Clifford might turn to – at least in small doses throughout games – is using the nearly 7-foot Isaac at the center position. The 22-year-old played some center back on Oct. 28 – the last time the Magic were in Toronto – and he nearly led the Magic to a come-from-behind victory. Isaac, who returned on Wednesday from an ankle sprain of his own, had 16 points, a career-best-tying 13 rebounds and three blocked shots while trying to help the Magic make up for the loss of Vucevic and Gordon. Isaac ranks second in the NBA in blocked shots per game (2.83) and ranks behind only Los Angeles Lakers’ superstar forward Anthony Davis.

``If you’re having trouble when the other team downsizes, so you get back to more similar type of matchups,’’ Clifford said of a potential scenario where he could envision playing Isaac at the center position. ``It’s not something we’d do a ton, but it’s good to have that option.’’

Clifford went on to say that the Magic have rarely had to go with smaller lineups because of the inside/out versatility and high basketball IQ of Vucevic. Now, with the prospect of the all-star being out for an extended period of time, Clifford said the effects of that loss will undoubtedly be felt. But, he stressed, the Magic will do their best to try and withstand the injury losses – something that they weren’t forced to do very often last season.

``When you lose your best player, it’s hard to say that you have more than enough,’’ Clifford said with a chuckle. ``Most positions, we’d be OK. But that (loss of Vucevic for possibly an extended period of time) – I can’t lie to you – that would be a big hit.’’

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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