Steve Clifford, Magic Players Adjusting Routines to Help Prevent Coronavirus Spread

by John Denton

MEMPHIS – As a general rule, NBA players, coaches and staffers are intensely loyal creatures of habit and they would prefer to never stray from their regular routines on game days.

However, because of concerns over the potential spread of coronavirus, some players and coaches are having their usual routines slightly disrupted now on game days. Ultimately, they agree that the disruptions in routine are small inconveniences in the name of precaution and safety from the virus that has already had a major effect around the globe and similarly on the sports world.

In an unprecedented move, the NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS announced on Monday that they are closing access to their locker rooms to all ``nonessential’’ personnel in response to the coronavirus crisis ``after consultation with infectious disease and public health experts.’’ Media, which are normally allowed into locker rooms for a 30-minute period prior to games and not long after the final horn, are now prohibited from entering the locker rooms.

As it relates to the NBA, rather than pregame and postgame interviews taking place just outside the locker room or in front of dressing stalls, coaches and players now will meet with the media in a designated space and the two groups are expected to remain a certain distance apart. The leagues have said that the changes will only be temporary.

``I just think it’s prudent and smart and the league has been super-organized with it and we’ve all been getting information about it as there are, unfortunately, more cases in this country,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said of the measures taken by the NBA. ``It’s the next step for all of us. Universities are going to only online classes, people are only working at home and it all makes sense to me.’’

A potentially drastic next step could feature teams playing games without crowds present at games – an option that is expected to be considered by all major sports leagues in America if the virus continues to spread. While that scenario would be far from ideal for all parties involved, several players said their primary concern is for safety – both for themselves and the fans.

``Man, it’s crazy right now, but I’d rather be safe than sorry,’’ Magic point guard Markelle Fultz said. ``It’s crazy how it is spreading and everything, so I can avoid it spreading. I’m just trying to do everything that I can to keep from getting it, so whatever they do to try and help I’m happy about it.’’

FULTZ’S FIGHT: In playing the point guard position, arguably the NBA’s deepest and most talented spot because of the bevy of playmakers there both young and old, Fultz is well aware that he won’t get many nights to simply take it easy.

On a trip where Fultz has already faced off against stars D’Angelo Russell and Russell Westbrook – and played particularly well both times – the Magic’s dynamic playmaker will set to do battle on Tuesday against Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant.

``Every night you’ve got somebody new, and that’s the beauty of the game,’’ Fultz said of the challenge against Memphis’ young star. ``I love being a competitor, I love playing and every night that I come out there I’ve got to bring my best.’’

Fultz, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2017 NBA draft, has revived his career following two years derailed by a shoulder injury. Playing his best basketball of the season of late, the 21-year-old Fultz has boosted his nightly production to 12 points, 5.2 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals a game. He torched Russell and the Timberwolves for 24 points and five assists on stellar 11-of-14 shot-making on Friday. He was as good, if not better, on Sunday in Houston when he had 18 points, five assists and two second-half 3-pointers to blunt a brief Rockets’ rally.

Morant, the No. 2 pick from last June’s NBA Draft, has been a driving force behind Memphis’ surprising season by averaging team highs in points (17.6) and assists (7.0) – numbers that are also tops among all rookies. Even though he was picked second in last spring’s draft, Morant has become the heavy favorite to win the league’s Rookie of the Year award – especially if his Grizzlies make the playoffs ahead of Williamson’s Pelicans.

As for facing off against Fultz on Tuesday, Morant downplayed the head-to-head matchup because he said he is more worried about the big picture of trying to get into the playoffs.

``I’m happy for (Fultz) and I heard that he’s playing well and it’s a blessing, but my focus is Grizzlies-Magic and not Ja and Markelle,’’ Morant said.

THE ENNIS EFFECT: The Magic came into Tuesday first in the NBA in offensive rating (118.2 points per 100 possessions) over the past 11 games. Not coincidentally, versatile forward James Ennis III has played in each of those 11 games with the Magic.

Ennis, a six-year NBA veteran, came to the Magic on Feb. 6 in a trade deadline day deal with the Philadelphia 76ers. After playing off the bench in his first two games with the Magic, Ennis was moved into the starting lineup just after the break for the NBA All-Star Game and he’s played a major role in Orlando’s uptick in offense. Though he’s averaged just 5.8 points and 3.1 rebounds and shot 44.2 percent overall and 34.9 percent from 3-point range, Ennis has had a major impact with his defensive toughness, his 3-point threat and his ability to run the fast break, head coach Steve Clifford said.

``I think it starts with range shooting and he’s played enough in our league and in enough big games that they’re conscious of him and they’re not going to just let him catch the ball and not close out to him,’’ Clifford said of how Ennis helps the Magic’s offensive spacing. ``The other part of it is the very nature of how he plays. He plays in a way that your team is going to function well. There’s an intangible there (with Ennis). … That’s the product of coaching, and those are the things that you are only going to know if you are around the player every day.’’

Ennis, who waived the no-trade clause in his contract in order to play for the Magic, is flattered that he’s gotten some of the credit for the Magic’s turnaround, but he knows it is a team effort.

``When a coach mentions your name as part of helping a team be successful it always brings joy to a player,’’ Ennis said. ``I just feel like everybody is playing well right now and scoring the ball well. I feel like if our defense can go up a little more, we can be even better. Over these last 18 games we need to get our defense tighter together. We have great players and we’re going to score, but we have to defend.’’

UP NEXT: After spending the past eight nights on the road while traveling to Miami, Minnesota, Houston and Memphis, the Magic will get a much-needed day off on Wednesday.

The team will be back in action on Thursday night when it faces the Chicago Bulls at 7 p.m. at the Amway Center. The Magic are 1-0 this season against the Bulls, beating them 103-95 on Dec. 23 in a game where the Magic swatted 13 shots.

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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