ORLANDO – To fully fathom how far the Orlando Magic have come in terms of toughness and togetherness in their fight for respectability, you must first look backward at what was quite possibly their low moment last season.
Some 13 months ago, the Magic were run off the Amway Center parquet by the hot-shooting Utah Jazz to the tune of a 125-85 final score. That 40-point margin tied for the most lopsided loss in franchise history at home and it was the fourth consecutive defeat of a losing skid that ultimately reached nine games. The Magic never turned things around, went 25-57 and missed the playoffs a sixth straight season.
Now, fast forward to Saturday when the Magic were once again facing the Utah Jazz – this time at Arena Ciudad de Mexico in Mexico City. Orlando was dreadful on the offensive end much of the first three quarters and failed to find much traction because of missed shots and turnovers. Then, came the fourth quarter – a time when the squad rolled over a season ago and fell behind by as much as 46 points.
This time around, Orlando made 12 of its first 15 shots and drilled five of seven 3-pointers and 12 of 14 free throws to throttle the Jazz 41-30 over the final 12 minutes. The strong closing kick gave Orlando a 96-89 defeat of Utah and a 2-0 journey to Mexico City.
The way the Magic won on Saturday – by casting aside the early-game troubles and sticking together late when the game was there to win – speaks volumes about how far the squad has come, veteran point guard D.J. Augustin said.
``I’ve said it from the beginning that the difference in this team is our attitude,’’ said Augustin, who played well in Orlando’s defeats of Chicago and Utah in Mexico. ``In the past, we’d lose a few games and we’d keep losing because we’d get down on ourselves. Now, if we lose one or two, it might be nasty or a really tough loss, but we’ll still fight back and get a good win against a good team.
``It’s just our mindset and I think we’re tired of losing and tired of being out of the playoff talk and tired of not being there at the end of the season,’’ Augustin added. ``We don’t want to be like that this year.’’
Orlando (14-15) came to Mexico at something of a crossroads in its season. It had dropped the previous three games – two of them in lopsided fashion. Clearly weary from a couple of long stretches on the road, the Magic seemed to be letting their season slip away once again.
Instead of that happening, however, the Magic regrouped and got a couple of hard-fought victories thanks to strong fourth-quarter play. On Thursday, standout center Nikola Vucevic scored 10 of his game-high 26 points in the fourth quarter and drilled the game-winning shot with 28.1 seconds to play. And on Saturday, when the Magic needed 32 minutes to break 40 points early in the game, they found a way to pour in 41 points over the final 12 minutes to dispatch the playoff-tested Jazz.
``(The two wins) can get us back on the right track,’’ said Magic guard Terrence Ross, who scored 19 points on Saturday despite a back that tightened up on him and made him questionable to play. ``Any time you can win a couple in a row it can create momentum. That’s the biggest thing – creating momentum and maintaining it – and making sure we play games more like this going forward.’’
After spending nearly a week on the road and five days in Mexico City, the Magic will now get a few days to recover prior to hosting the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday. While Orlando has notched signature wins in Boston, in San Antonio, in Miami and in Los Angeles (against the Lakers) and won twice this week on a neutral court, it has had its struggles building much consistency at the Amway Center. In true home games, the Magic are just 6-8 – a record that must improve if they want to make a playoff push, coach Steve Clifford insisted.
``I think (the wins in Mexico) can give us a big boost,’’ Clifford said. ``The big thing that I told the guys in the locker room is that was a big win (against Utah) because of the way we fought.
``But when you’re the coach, here’s the problem in the NBA – there’s disaster waiting around corner,’’ Clifford continued in all seriousness. ``The reality is this – we have to start playing better on our court in Orlando. That’s been our problem. We’ve been good on the road and we played two good games here and now we’ve got to go home where we have four of the next five and start playing better there.’’
Plenty of players have credited Clifford, Orlando’s first-year coach, as the reason for the Magic’s about-face this season. A disciplined, no-nonsense coaching lifer, Clifford has brought a distinct toughness to the team by holding players accountable and holding them to high standards. No longer is it acceptable to play well and lose. No longer do young players get minutes without merit. And no longer are the Magic allowed to roll over in games and get throttled the way they did last season by Utah.
``This year, most importantly, we have more confidence in ourselves and even when things don’t go our way we stick with it and try to find a way,’’ said standout center Nikola Vucevic, who outplayed reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert on Saturday. ``There were a couple of times where we got down double digits (on Saturday), but we just stuck with it. We stuck with what works for us and we found a way.
``For sure, there’s a huge growth for this team from last year to this year but it has to continue, and we can’t stop now,’’ the center continued.
Added Ross, Orlando’s biggest weapon off the bench all season: ``I feel like we’re a different team now. I think it’s a big credit to (Clifford). He sees the bigger picture and he does a good job of getting us to buy in.’’
Unlike last season, when the Magic allowed that dispiriting defeat to Utah and the nine-game losing streak knock them out of contention, they aren’t about to fall off the pace now, guards Evan Fournier and Ross said. Fournier, who scored eight of his 24 points in Saturday’s fourth quarter, pointed to the Magic’s success in fourth quarters and close games this season as a sign of the team’s newfound toughness. Orlando is 5-3 in games decided by five points or less and it is 11-4 when tied or leading going into the fourth quarter.
Eventually, a somewhat exasperated Fournier said, people throughout the basketball world will see the Magic have come a long way from where they were last season.
``I just feel like we don’t get enough credit as far as being a fighting team,’’ Fournier said. ``We’ve been in a lot of close games and we were in another one (Saturday night) and we were able to close it and win it. … With the new coaching staff, it starts with (Clifford). He’s definitely a tough guy and it (rubs off) on us, to be honest.’’
Added Ross: ``I see (the Magic being underestimated) a lot, especially teams that haven’t played us yet. They might still think of us as the team from last year. But I don’t think that’s the case anymore, not with how far we’ve come and how we’re playing now.’’
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