Magic Focused on Bouncing Back During Trip in Mexico

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

MEXICO CITY – Whereas some look at a Mexican retreat as an exotic place to escape to, detach from the occasionally harsh realities of the daily grind and blow off some steam, the Orlando Magic are viewing their journey south of the U.S. border as an all-business trip that will hopefully save their season.

Losers of three straight – two of which have come in humbling fashion – the Magic (12-15) know that they have hit a critical juncture in their season. Now, they are casting their eyes toward Mexico as a place where they might have some relief in the form of a couple of much-needed victories.

``These trips are always fun, going to a different city and a different country and you’ll get to see some things you usually wouldn’t (get to see). But for us, it’s a business trip and we’ve got to take care of business,’’ said center Nikola Vucevic after Orlando’s 101-76 loss in Dallas on Monday. ``We can be tourists in the summer, but for now it’s important for us to focus on these next two games and play better as a team. If we could get these next two games, it would be huge for us. We can’t get too much under .500 if we want to stay in the race for the playoffs.’’

Not only are the Magic competing in the Mexico City Games 2018, they are considered the ``home team’’ for games against the Chicago Bulls (Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET) and Utah Jazz (Saturday, 5 p.m. ET). These will be the 27thand 28thNBA games ever played in Mexico and the eighth and ninth regular-season games played there. Since 1992, 23 NBA teams will have played games in Mexico.

For a Magic franchise that has played games in London (twice), Japan, China and Brazil, it will be their second trip to Mexico. The Magic opened their 2012 preseason schedule in Mexico City against the then-New Orleans Hornets. The team travelled from Dallas to Mexico City on Tuesday and on Wednesday it will practice and take part in an NBA Cares event prior to facing the slumping Bulls on Thursday.

While the focus is clearly on playing well in the two games ahead many of the Magic players look at the trip as a chance to take in another culture and help to spread the love for the game of basketball around the globe.

``I thought about it a bunch of different times when I’ve been on various flights to other cities, domestic or international. It’s pretty darn cool to think about where basketball can take you,’’ said Magic center Mo Bamba, who is expected to make a return to action on Thursday following a one-game suspension for violating a team rule.

Added Vucevic, the Magic’s only remaining player from that 2012 trip to Mexico City trip that proved to be his first-ever game in an Orlando uniform: ``It’s great because it gives a new opportunity for NBA fans in a different part of the world – this time, Mexico City – to watch us play. The NBA, obviously, is followed world-wide and it will be great for fans there in Mexico to watch us play.’’

Orlando is hoping to give those fans a better product to see than the one they put out in the previous two games. After losing a heartbreaking overtime decision to Denver last Wednesday, the Magic were popped 112-90 by Indiana on Friday. On Monday, the Magic were without standout guard Evan Fournier (private family matter) and Bamba and they predictably fell flat against the surging Mavericks and hot-shot rookie Luka Doncic. In that game, Orlando set a season low for points (76) and tied a franchise record for fewest free throw attempts in a game (five).

``We miss Evan (Fournier) and he’s a big part of what we do, but that’s not the reason we played like this,’’ an upset Vucevic said after the unsightly loss. ``We had no energy really, no purpose of play on the offensive end. I know we were missing a lot (of shots), but we weren’t playing the way that we do when we’re an efficient offense.’’

Vucevic, Orlando’s leading scorer and leading rebounder all season, had one of his worst game of the season at a bad time. Facing DeAndre Jordan, he made just four of 15 shots, whiffed on his only 3-point attempt and had only eight points to go with his 16 rebounds. Afterward, he shouldered much of the blame for Orlando’s ugly effort.

``It was probably my worst game in a little while,’’ Vucevic said. ``I didn’t play well at all and I have to be better, especially on the offensive end because the team relies on me a lot. Not even the shots not falling, my aggressiveness and my purpose of play weren’t at a level like they need to be or where they have been all season. So, I just need to pick it up the next game.’’

Vucevic, who desperately wants the Magic to make a playoff run following six long years of rebuilding, knows that a lot could be riding on how Orlando responds to its latest bit of adversity. Early in the season, the Magic suffered through a four-game skid that dropped them to 2-6 and threatened their hopes. They responded by beating San Antonio and Cleveland and ripping off a run of seven victories in a nine-game stretch.

Vucevic was the driving force in that stretch, even winning the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Week award after Orlando impressively whipped the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks on back-to-back nights.

Now, the 7-foot center and his Magic are hopeful that a trip to Mexico can help the squad get back on track. They don’t know yet whether they will have Fournier back for the two games in Mexico, but Vucevic stressed that the Magic should still have enough focus and urgency to play better basketball.

``When it’s just eight games into the season (and there’s a losing streak), it’s different than when you are 20-something games into the season,’’ Vucevic said pointedly. ``The margin for error now with these kinds of losing streaks is much slimmer and we have to react quickly and turn this thing around.

``We’re going to Mexico City for two games and we have to first focus on the Bulls. We just have to be much better than (Monday in Dallas) and I have to do a much better job of leading the team as well,’’ he added. ``There are no distractions (on the Mexico City trip); it’s just like any other road trip. We have everything that we need. If anything, there’s probably less distractions. There aren’t all the things that you have at home; it’s just you and the hotel and you can really focus and prepare for the games.

``We have no choice,’’ he continued. ``There are three games in a row that we’ve lost, and we have to get back on track.’’

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