By John Denton Nov. 29, 2017
ORLANDO – The Orlando Magic are back at the Amway Center following another extended road trip, but that doesn’t necessarily mean things will be any easier for them tonight in trying to snap out of their worst skid of the season.
That’s because the star-studded Oklahoma City Thunder are coming to Central Florida, and standout point guard Russell Westbrook has a history of tormenting the Magic at the Amway Center.
Orlando (8-13) has dropped its last nine games in a row and it hasn’t won since a Nov. 10 victory in Phoenix. The Magic, who are coming off an 0-4 swing through the Midwest and East Coast, have been in the midst of their toughest stretch of the schedule what with them playing eight of the last 10 games and spending 15 of the past 20 nights – including the Thanksgiving holiday – on the road.
The Magic’s most recent defeat came on Monday night in Indiana when they took a one-point lead early in the fourth quarter only to see Victor Oladipo and the Pacers rip off a 23-5 spurt and gain the victory.
``Just snap the streak, get the taste back into our mouths of what winning feels like,’’ Magic forward Aaron Gordon said of his team’s mindset. ``We’re playing hard and we’re competing, we’re practicing hard and diligently, so we’ll snap out of it. We’ve got great guys on this team, guys who love to play the game of basketball, so we’ll come out of it.’’
Defensive woes have been the primary culprit of the Magic’s skid. They have allowed at least 120 points five times during their losing streak and they are yielding 117.4 points per game over the last nine games.
The Magic did get an offensive boost on Monday from guard Jonathon Simmons, who was promoted to the starting lineup in place of Terrence Ross. Simmons hit four 3-pointers and scored a team-best 21 points against the Pacers.
Oklahoma City (8-11) comes to Orlando surprisingly struggling after adding former all-stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony around Westbrook in the offseason. The Thunder have dropped their past two games since beating Golden State, including a puzzling 97-81 loss in Dallas on Saturday to the struggling Mavericks. In that game, OKC shot just 36.1 percent from the floor, trailed by as much as 26 points and turned the ball over 17 times. It’s the 14th time this season in which the Thunder have kicked the ball away at least 17 times. George, who has struggled at times while having to play without the ball in his hands, made just one of 12 shots and scored only two points.
He won’t get any pity from Magic coach Frank Vogel despite the close relationship between the two from their time together in Indiana. With Vogel as his coach, George played in Indiana from 2010-2017 and developed into a star forward. Vogel left Indiana after the 2015-16 season and came to Orlando, while George was traded to OKC this past summer after issuing a request to be dealt. Thus far this season, he’s scoring 20.4 points per game, but his shooting percentage (42.2 percent) has plummeted while learning to play with Westbrook and Anthony.
``These things take time,’’ Vogel said of OKC’s newness. ``You see it in the Cavs first year when LeBron (James) came back and in LeBron’s first year in Miami. I remember them being around 8-11 and they ultimately hit their stride and went on a big run. This (OKC) team is no different. They’re ultra-talented and well-coached. Billy’s doing a good job of making sure that they are defending.
``They are defending at a high level and the offensive rhythm is going to come. It’s not going to come tonight (against the Magic), but it’s going to come,’’ Vogel added jokingly.
The Thunder have had major struggles on the road this season, losing each of the past six games outside of OKC and they haven’t won away from home since Halloween night in Milwaukee. For the season, the Thunder are just 2-8 on the road.
Westbrook hasn’t been nearly the same player that he was last season while winning the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. He still leads the Thunder in scoring (21.6 ppg.), rebounding (9.7 rpg.) and assists (9.7 apg.), but his shooting from the floor (40.1 percent) and 3-point range (31.4 percent) have been atrocious.
The superstar point guard has been downright breathtaking in his last two games in Orlando while leading the Thunder to stirring victories. Last March, he battered the Magic for 57 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in an overtime win. In October of 2015, Westbrook had 48 points in OKC’s double-overtime defeat of the Magic. In both games, he nailed tying 3-pointers late in regulation to extend the game to OT.
Asked on Wednesday morning what he remembered from those last two games in Orlando, Westbrook said: ``Just wins, that’s it.’’
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