By John Denton Feb. 2, 2018
ORLANDO – With his Orlando Magic missing standout center Nikola Vucevic and the offense stuck in a rut for much of early January, head coach Frank Vogel dramatically reconfigured the team’s plan of attack on the fly and hoped a change would follow.
Rather than relying on Vucevic’s high-post passing and his pick-and-pop plays that drag opposing centers away from the rim, Vogel designed an offense that would feature more shooting around replacement centers Bismack Biyombo and Khem Birch rolling hard down the lane. Vogel also strategically flooded the floor with 3-point specialists, believing that dribble penetration and those cutting big men would cause defenses to collapse. And, more than ever, Vogel stressed, the team would need to play through the pass and use ball and player movement as weapons to generate open looks.
As it turns out, the new wrinkles have produced dramatic results on the offensive end of the floor and have turned the Magic (15-35) into one of the league’s most torrid-shooting teams heading into Friday’s game against the Washington Wizards (29-22) at the Amway Center.
``We tinkered with some things stylistically to fit the personnel, but it’s really just about our guys buying into playing with the pass, playing the right way and playing to each other’s strengths,’’ Vogel said following Friday’s practice. ``So I’ve been really pleased with that (offensive) end of the floor of late.’’
Orlando has lost both games against Washington this season and 16 of the last 18 since 2013. A whopping 15 of those losses to the Wizards have come largely because all-star point guard John Wall has bedeviled them with his speed and playmaking. Wall underwent knee surgery earlier in the week and the Wizards surprisingly have gone 3-0 since he’s been out by playing more through Bradley Beal (23.9 ppg.) and Otto Porter (13.9 ppg.). Beal had 27 fourth-quarter points on Thursday to help Washington rally past Toronto.
``When one of your best players go down, usually the whole team has a new opportunity, so everybody tries to show what they can do,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, his team’s second-leading scorer at 18 points per game. ``It’s basically going to be the Bradley Beal Show now, they’re going to play super hard and they’re going to run the floor. The Wizards are just a tough matchup for us.’’
Orlando’s strong stretch started, coincidentally, against Washington back on Jan. 12, and the eight-game span that followed has been the best of the season since a 6-2 start. Orlando felled playoff-bound foes Boston and Minnesota and a Los Angeles Lakers team that had previously won eight of 11 games. Also, the Magic pushed playoff powers Cleveland, Houston, Indiana and Washington to the brink before suffering narrow losses.
Over the past eight games, Orlando ranks second in the NBA in effective field goal percentage (55.2 percent) – a statistic that takes into account a team’s number of made 3-pointers with its other field goals. During that same timeframe, Orlando also ranks third in overall field goal percentage (48.8 percent), fifth in offensive rating (111.6 points per 100 possessions), sixth in 3-point accuracy (38 percent), eighth in assists (24.9) and ninth in scoring (109.8).
``Whenever guys are getting opportunities for wide-open threes, we all have confidence that they are going to hit them.,’’ said veteran power forward Marreese Speights, who has shot 46.2 percent from the field and 40.7 percent from 3-point range while averaging 7.7 points a game over the last eight games. ``We’ve done a really good job of sharing the ball and getting open looks for guys.’’
Never has that hot shooting and crisp ball movement been more apparent than in games on Tuesday and Wednesday against the Rockets and Lakers. Orlando lost in Houston because it never got defensive control of superstar guard James Harden – he had 60 points in a triple-double effort – but the offense certainly wasn’t to blame as the Magic shot 50.6 percent from the floor and drilled 15 3-pointers.
A night later, facing a Lakers team that had quietly become one of the NBA’s surprises with its dynamic, up-tempo play, the Magic completely overwhelmed and broke the spirit of L.A. with their sharing of the ball and shooting from afar. The Magic not only tied a season high with 18 3-pointers, they set a franchise record for 3-pointers in a quarter when they drilled nine in the third period.
``We played really well and shot the ball lights-out,’’ said Fournier, who had four 3-pointers in that electrifying third quarter on Wednesday. ``Some nights it’s going to happen, I guess. I don’t know how many threes we made, but in that third quarter, I just felt like it was raining (in shots). It was just tough for the Lakers to guard us that night because we had it going.’’
The Magic’s offensive revival has come because they have played together – just as Vogel demanded. Six players are averaging at least 3.0 assists a game over the last eight games, while nine players are scoring at least 7.7 points a game during this uptick. Mario Hezonja (10 ppg. and 34.4 percent 3-point shooting over the last eight games), D.J. Augustin (9.1 ppg. and 52.2 percent 3-point shooting) and Shelvin Mack (8.7 ppg. and 66.7 percent field goal shooting) have dramatically stepped up their play of late.
Speights, a veteran of 10 NBA seasons, has been a leader throughout the Magic’s highs and lows of the season. He insisted that his teammates shed any excuses of fatigue prior to Wednesday’s game and the team followed his lead. The converted power forward pumped in 17 points and four 3-pointers on Tuesday in Houston and he registered a game-high 21 and another three 3-pointers on Wednesday.
Speights likes how the Magic changed their offensive approach and have used a team-first mentality to become a much more dynamic team over the past three weeks. That approach has made them more successful of late and at least competitive in every game over the past eight.
``We’ve got a lot of guys on this team who can play,’’ Speights insisted. ``(Injured players) Vooch and (Aaron Gordon), they’re different kinds of players. With guys like (Biyombo), myself, Khem (Birch) and D.J. (Augustin), we’re all different kinds of players and we just find a way. When guys are out, you’ve just got to find a way to compete, play together and win.’’
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