Harkless: "Not Once Did I Put My Head Down"

By John Denton

March 19, 2015

ORLANDO – Maybe it was only fitting that the furious comeback from 22 points down to within one on Wednesday night was authored, in part, by Maurice Harkless – the Orlando Magic’s comeback kid of sorts this season.

Shuffled out of the regular rotation much of the season, Harkless refused to be broken by the frustration that accompanied his not playing for long stretches of games. Instead, Harkless kept working on his game during off days and pre- and post-practice sessions and the 6—fot-9 forward has reemerged as a threat of late for the Magic.

Pressed into starting duty on Wednesday because of an ankle injury to Tobias Harris, Harkless responded with 18 points, six rebounds and four steals. His inspired play helped the Magic smother Dallas in the second half and nearly pull off an improbable comeback from 22 points down. Orlando (21-49) ultimately lost 107-102, but the talk coming out of the Magic locker room late Wednesday night was the perseverance and toughness of Harkless. The 21-year-old forward hopes that his strong play of late proves that he hasn’t given up on a season that tested every shred of his patience early on.

``I think this shows a little bit about my character because not once did I put my head down all year,’’ Harkless said. ``I’ve just been ready to go when I’ve had a chance. (On Wednesday night), I had another chance to show what I could do and I took advantage of it.’’

Not only did Harkless wonder if this chance would ever come this season, but he also thought he might not even be around with the Magic in the days and hours before the NBA trade deadline in late February. If they weren’t going to play him, Harkless thought quietly, why would the team bother keeping him around past the deadline? Reading various internet reports that he could be traded also did a number of Harkless’ outlook on his future with the Magic.

``I mean, you hear the rumors and everything like that. It’s a reality, so I’m not going to sit here and say that I didn’t have that thought (of being traded) because I did,’’ said Harkless, whose Magic host the powerful Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night at the Amway Center. ``I knew (a trade) was a possibility, but I’m still here (with the Magic) and that’s all that matters.’’

All that mattered to the Magic on Wednesday was the way the team responded in the face of some serious adversity. Dewayne Dedmon (ankle sprain), Willie Green (back spasms), Evan Fournier (hip soreness), Devyn Marble (detached retina in eye) and Harris (ankle sprain) missed the game with injuries, leaving the Magic severely short-handed against the deep and talented Mavericks. And Dallas flexed its considered muscles early in the game, racing to a 12-0 start, a 17-point halftime lead and a 22-point bulge early in the third quarter.

But the game soon turned around when Orlando ripped off a 14-3 spurt – four of those points coming off fastbreak dunks from Harkless. Teaming with Elfrid Payton (who had his first-ever triple double with 15 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds) and Victor Oladipo (19 points and six assists), Harkless keyed a humongous rally that spanned the third and fourth periods.

Once down 70-48, Orlando climbed all the way back to within 101-100 with 1 minute to play. A Dallas team that made 14 of 19 shots in the second quarter and 29 of its first 42 tries (69 percent) hit just 10 of 38 (26.3 percent) and turned the ball over eight times in the final 22 minutes of the game.

``One stop turns into two, three and then four and the next thing you know we’re only down (one point),’’ said Harkless, who had eight points, five rebounds and a steal in the second half. ``We’ve been in that position before and our goal was to get it to within 10 and make them call the first time out (of the fourth quarter). And that’s what we did – we got it to 10, they called time out and we had momentum and we kept it going our way. We had to get stops and the offense took care of itself.’’

Oladipo, one of Harkless’ best friends on the team, was happy to see the third-year small forward play such a huge role in Orlando’s second half rally. Oladipo has been on the players – along with Green – who has constantly encouraged Harkless to stay engaged even when he thought this year was turning into a lost season for him.

``To see him play well like he did, it was big for us,’’ said Oladipo, who had an off-balanced 3-point try that would have tied the game miss with 4.8 seconds remaining. ``It’s big for Mo and is confidence. My man has been working on his game. He went from not playing at all to starting, from playing little minutes to playing big minutes and he’s been ready every time. He showed up big for us (two weeks ago) against Boston and he showed up tonight.’’

After showing flashes of his vast potential during his first two seasons in the NBA, Harkless prepared himself last summer for an increased role this season. But when Orlando played Harris more at small forward, pushed No. 4 pick Aaron Gordon into the rotation and occasionally relied on Fournier and Green at small forward, Harkless was shuffled out of the mix.

When he failed to get into three of the first four games of the season, it was a harbinger for what was to come. In late November and early December, there was a nine-game stretch where Harkless failed to play in eight of them. The truly low point came in January and February when Harkless was made inactive for 10 games – something almost unheard of from a player once considered to be a key building block for the franchise.

Despite daily encouragement from Oladipo and former AAU coach Nate Belew, Harkless struggled with being shoved out of the rotation. But rather than pouting, he continued to work – both in practice and in late-high shooting sessions with Oladipo.

``It was tough, definitely, but I just had to keep working,’’ said Harkless said. ``The confidence came from the work that I put in. During the summer and during the season, I just kept working and kept grinding. I kept trying to be ready every day by practicing. I knew my opportunities would come.’’

Harkless showed signs of life on March 8 when his play – 14 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three steals – was key in Orlando wiping out 20- and four-point deficits in a home win against the Boston Celtics.

Then, came Wednesday when Harkless stuffed the stat sheet with a variety of contributions. His 3-pointer early in the game was Orlando’s first points following a 12-0 start and a second 3-pointer came later in the first half. Harkless also had three offensive boards, four of Orlando’s 12 steals and he caused all kinds of havoc with his long-armed defense and his gazelle-like sprinting on the fastbreak for two dunks.

That, Harkless said, is how he has to play to keep his spot in the rotation over the final 12 games so that he doesn’t find himself back in the predicament of not playing.

``I just have to keep impacting games, whether it’s getting points, getting rebounds or steals or doing things that don’t even show up on the stat sheet, he said with conviction. ``I feel like I can impact the game in a lot of ways. I’ve just got to keep doing that and going hard every day.’’

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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