Magic Feeling Upbeat Knowing Playoffs Are Within Reach

by John Denton

ORLANDO – When the Orlando Magic’s charter flight from Salt Lake City landed just before 5 a.m. on Thursday, veteran center Nikola Vucevic understandably wasn’t in the greatest of moods.

Not only had he not slept much, but his Magic had just squandered leads of 21 and 19 points in an ugly loss to the Jazz on Wednesday. That loss was Orlando’s fourth straight and it wrapped up a dispiriting 1-5 road trip.

Not long after he reached his suburban Orlando home, Vucevic’s spirits spiked when he held newborn son, Filip, in his massive hands for the first time in nearly two weeks. All throughout the Magic’s six-game, 11-day road trip – where they played in all four continental U.S. time zones for the first time in the 30-year franchise history – Vucevic was able to see how rapidly his 3 1/2-week-old son was growing thanks to Apple’s FaceTime technology. But, actually holding his son and peering into his eyes made all of Vucevic’s frustrations suddenly dissolve.

``He’s gained some weight, he grew a little bit and now he can keep his eyes wide open,’’ Vucevic marveled. ``I spent a lot of time with him (on Thursday). If he wasn’t feeding, he was with me and I made sure no one else had him. We had landed at 5 in the morning and we weren’t in a great mood because of our trip, but when I saw (my son) I forgot about everything and it was great. He gives me so much positive energy.’’

On Friday, Magic head coach Steve Clifford attempted to try and provide more positive energy to Vucevic and the rest of his Orlando teammates by reminding them that regardless of all that’s happened of late, the franchise came into the day just 2 ½ games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Sure, the Magic (17-24) slumped badly on their recent road trip, losing three games in which they had leads of at least 15 points, but the fact remains that the team is still in position to stay in the playoff chase over the remaining 41 games.

``Today, there was no message other than that we’re 2 ½ (games) out,’’ Clifford said. ``Regardless of what’s happened, let’s look forward and let’s get back to playing the way that we were before.

``It all starts with wanting to win, which I believe these guys badly want to win and I’m not worried about that,’’ Clifford continued. ``Then, it’s about having the right mental preparation and intensity and concentration. Then – and I know this sounds simple, but it’s what this league is all about – you have to play well.’’

To escape the grips of a four-game skid that threatens their season, the Magic will likely need to play well when they host a rare home/home back-to-back set of games over the weekend. Orlando hosts Boston (25-16) on Saturday and Houston (23-17) on Sunday, meaning it will get heavy doses of superstars Kyrie Irving (22.6 points, 6.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds a game) and James Harden (33.9 points, 8.6 assists and 6.0 rebounds a game) at a time when it is struggling to get back on track.

Both Boston and Houston have won seven of their past 10 games. The Celtics thumped Indiana on Wednesday, but predictably struggled on the second night of a back-to-back in Miami, losing 115-99 to the Heat. As for the Rockets, they seemed to find their footing following a slow start to the season, recently ripping off six straight wins behind the clutch-shooting exploits of Harden (40 points, 9.6 assists and 6.8 rebounds a game over the last 10). They have since split games against Denver (a win) and Milwaukee (a loss).

The Magic haven’t seemed to mind playing in high-stakes games against some of the NBA’s top teams this season. They have beaten the likes of Boston, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Miami, Utah and the Los Angeles Lakers (twice) and pushed other playoff powers such as Golden State and Portland to the brink in narrow losses.

Orlando beat the Celtics, 93-90 in Boston in October, but it has yet to play the Rockets this season. Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic, said he’s actually looking forward to facing the one-two punch of the Celtics and Rockets this weekend at what figures to be a sold-out Amway Center.

``As bad as it looks, things can turn around quickly for us,’’ said Vucevic, Orlando’s leading scorer (20.2 points) and rebounder (12 boards). ``This is going to be a very tough weekend for us because we have some great teams coming in (to Orlando). But if we can get a game or two in the next couple of days, they would be huge wins for us. It was good to get a day off (on Thursday), get some work in (on Friday) and we’re hoping to be ready (on Saturday).’’

The Magic got news on Friday that could be classified as both good and bad for the short term and long term of the franchise. An MRI on the sore left foot of rookie center Mo Bamba revealed no structural damage, but the 7-footer is expected to miss Saturday and Sunday’s games. The team is hopeful that the No. 6 pick from last June’s NBA Draft – who has averaged 6.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and a team-best 1.38 blocks in 16 minutes – will be able to play again by Wednesday when the Magic travel to Detroit.

Khem Birch, who had seven points, four rebounds and two blocked shots in 17 minutes on Wednesday while filling in for Bamba, will back up Vucevic at center for at least the next two games. The Canadian native, who went to high school in Massachusetts, had one of the best games of his NBA career last season in Boston, contributing four points, seven rebounds and blocks of two Irving shots in the fourth quarter.

Despite their lack of success on the road, Orlando played exceptionally well for long stretches only to see their second unit falter. The uneven play of the bench and flat starts to second halves were major reasons why Orlando saw big leads against Minnesota (19 points), Los Angeles Clippers (15 points) and Utah (21 in the first half and 19 in the third quarter) devolve into ugly losses.

Orlando’s starting five of D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, Jonathan Issac, Aaron Gordon and Vucevic have a plus-7.6 net rating (107.2 points per 100 possessions scored and 99.6 points allowed per 100 possessions), ranking that unit seventh best in the NBA among starting groups that have played at least 200 minutes together.

Even when the Magic replace Isaac with their most productive reserve all season, Terrence Ross – a grouping they have used for 118 minutes this season and one they often like to close games with – the Magic’s net rating improves to an impressive plus-15.4 points per 100 possessions.

It’s the other reserves that must improve for the Magic to put a complete game together. According to NBA.com efficiency ratings, Orlando’s bench ranks 28thin the NBA at a minus-9.3 net rating. On Friday, Clifford said he was inclined to continue using Isaiah Briscoe at backup point guard behind Augustin after experiments with Jerian Grant and Jonathon Simmons have failed.

Clifford feels that because of the cohesion and production of the starters, the only thing that is standing in the way of the Magic righting their season and making a playoff run over the final 41 games is stronger bench play.

``We’re halfway through and we’re still trying to find ways to play better for 48 minutes a night,’’ said Clifford, who has tried numerous mixes off the bench and instances where he staggers different starters with reserves. ``Also, (the starters) are capable of even more, to me.

``It still comes down to this in this league to me: The depth is important because games are 48 minutes and you play three-to-four times a week and you can’t play guys 42 minutes a night,’’ he added. ``And, at the same time, basketball is a game where the team that has the best player usually has the advantage. I met with (the starters) the other day and told them, `When teams are playing well, it’s usually because their best players are having a run.’ So, it all goes hand-in-hand.’’

Clifford said there’s no time like the present for the Magic to make improvements – both the starters and the reserves. Notch two big wins over the weekend and the Magic would be able to totally flip the feeling of their season,’ Clifford insisted.

``The reality is we’ve hit a tough stretch, we haven’t played as well and we’re halfway through (the season), and with all that being said we’re 2 ½ games out of the playoffs,’ he stressed. ``We have everything to play for and we’ve got to play our way in (to the playoffs) – starting this weekend and not waiting until Monday because these teams are so good. No, starting this weekend. We’ve shown when we’re right, we’re very good. To me, this is a good opportunity to turn it around.’’

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.