Magic Gear Up for Challenging West Coast Trip

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

DENVER – On this festive Thanksgiving Day, the Orlando Magic are thankful to have a plate full of recent victories that changed the temperature of their season, gobs of stellar individual performances and several heaping helpings of improved defense and better ball movement.

However, it’s the leftovers following Thanksgiving that are a cause for concern now for an Orlando team that sits precariously at 9-9. After feasting on a host of home games in their best stretch yet, the Magic are hitting the road for a difficult stretch of games that could cause heartburn and indigestion if they don’t continue to play well.

The Magic departed Central Florida on Turkey Day and set out on a nine-night, five-game trip that will feature what should be challenging games against Denver (Friday), the Los Angeles Lakers (Sunday afternoon), Golden State (Monday), Portland (Wednesday) and Phoenix (Nov. 30). They will need to pick up the pieces from a last-second, gut-punch loss on Tuesday at the Amway Center to ready themselves for what lies ahead.

``That (loss on Tuesday) is hard to swallow because we’ve got a really hard schedule now with some hard teams coming up on the road,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who saw his game-tying dunk go for naught on when Toronto won the game on Danny Green’s baseline jumper in the final second. ``It’s going to be a huge test for us as far as how we can fight through fatigue, travelling and stuff.

``Playing Denver in the first game is going to be hard,’’ added Fournier, who started his NBA career with the Nuggets some seven years ago. ``Then, we’ve got the Lakers, who we just whipped at home. Then, (it’s) Golden State and they’re not playing good, so they’ll be fired up. And Portland, who is ballin’. So, it’s a tough road trip coming up.’’

Orlando coach Steve Clifford feels his team is ready for the challenges ahead because it is armed with confidence from the recent stretch of solid play. Also, Clifford feels the Magic now have a detailed roadmap to success, knowing that they must defend at a high level, use ball and player movement to create open shots offensively and continue to work on improving the rebounding. The Magic’s strong play in those areas have already allowed them to win in Boston and San Antonio and push the powerful 76ers to the brink in Philadelphia earlier in the season.

To continue their stellar play and make the upcoming road trip a success, the Magic will need to display the same sort of physical and mental toughness that has gotten them to this point, Clifford said.

``I think we’re getting a lot better,’’ said Clifford, whose message of daily improvement helped the Magic dig their way out of a disappointing 2-6 start. We’re 7-3 in the last 10 (games) against a good schedule and we’ve beaten some quality teams here at home. We’ve gotten a lot better on offense and (on Tuesday) we played against the third-best offensive team in the NBA and we played great defense, so we’re making progress.’’

Long-time members of the Magic, such as Fournier, Aaron Gordon and center Nikola Vucevic, know that the squad can hardly afford to be satisfied with the success so far. Last season, Orlando impressively opened 6-2 and sat at 8-4 after beginning a grueling West Coast swing with a victory in Phoenix. A night later, the Magic were smashed in Denver, they lost then-rookie Jonathan Isaac to an ankle injury and it sent them on a slide that ultimately soured the season.

Vucevic, the reigning Player of the Week in the Eastern Conference while leading the Magic to a 3-1 record last week, knows his team must better handle adversity that is almost sure to pop up on a taxing trip. After all, if the Magic don’t keep finding ways to grind out victories on the road all of their early-season success will be forgotten.

``I don’t like to compare what happened in the past because this is a new year, we have a new coach and a lot of really good players,’’ said Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic. ``Some of us who have been here the longest have experience with (playing well early in the season) and I think that will help us know what we have to do to keep this going.

``Coach (Clifford) does a good job of showing us every day what we have to do to have success and we have to just make sure we don’t get satisfied,’’ Vucevic added. ``We have to show up every day and play with the same urgency, same energy and same focus. We’ve been able to understand what works for us on both ends of the floor and we have to stick with that so that we can keep this going.’’

Second-year forward Wes Iwundu, who steadied the Magic’s starting lineup with his heady all-around play, put it best recently when referring to the selfless manner in which the Magic must play. It ties in perfectly with Thanksgiving and how the Magic have recently feasted on foes.

``When we win,’’ Iwundu said, ``everybody eats.’’

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