SALT LAKE CITY – When they cleared the picturesque Wasatch mountain range and landed in Salt Lake City on Tuesday afternoon, the Orlando Magic did something that no other team in the 30-year history of the franchise had ever accomplished on a road trip.
This accomplishment, however, wasn’t one the stumbling, road-weary Magic were exactly jumping for joy over or celebrating.
For the first time since the franchise started playing basketball in 1989, the Magic are hitting all four continental U.S. time zones on a road trip. Starting their journey back on Dec. 30, 2018, the Magic have traveled from Orlando to Charlotte, Charlotte to Chicago, Chicago to Minnesota, Minneapolis to Los Angeles, L.A. to Sacramento and, finally, Northern California to the Utah valley.
Forgive them, right now, if they aren’t exactly sure what city they are in, what their hotel room number is and what the time is where they are now. By the time the Magic (17-23) face the Jazz (20-21) on Wednesday and are back in Central Florida in the early-morning hours of Thursday, they will have travelled 6,987 miles.
Complicating matters, of course, is that the Magic have hit one of their roughest skids of the season as they’ve struggled to make shots and have often been buried under an avalanche of turnovers. While Magic coach Steve Clifford and several of the players have continually pointed out that every NBA team plays a difficult schedule and is forced to battle through grueling road trips, it’s hard to not wonder if there’s a cause-and-effect scenario with Orlando’s current three-game skid coming at the end of their most taxing trip.
``It’s not an excuse because it’s hard for everyone, but long road trips are definitely the hardest part of the NBA,’’ Magic guard Evan Fournier said after the squad dropped to 1-4 on the trip following Monday’s 111-95 defeat in Sacramento.
``Obviously, physically with the back-to-backs and all the games, it’s really, really hard,’’ Fournier added. ``But I feel like trips like this are hard mentally. You are constantly having to reset yourself and look forward to what is next. Different game plans, different cities, different hotels, making sure you rest and eat good – it’s kind of throws you off in terms of your routine, but every team goes through it.’’
When informed that Wednesday’s game in Utah will make the road trip unlike any other in Magic history with games in all four continental time zones, Fournier shook his head in amazement and said: ``Wow. That’s kind of crazy. I didn’t know that. That says it all, what I said about having to constantly adjust. But we still have to go to Utah with a warrior mentality and take care of business.’’
Rather than looking for sympathy, the Magic are looking for a spark to an offense that has curiously surged and sputtered in the past three games. After opening the trip with a lopsided loss in Charlotte and one-sided defeat of Chicago, Orlando built early leads of 19 and 15 points in games in Minnesota and Los Angeles only to lose them because of a bevy of missed shots.
On Monday, the second night of a back-to-back set of games, the Magic seemed poised to survive an early rash of turnovers and actually led 24-23 late in the first quarter. However, a string of nine straight misses over the next six minutes allowed Sacramento to break the game open and send the Magic careening to another loss.
Though he was highly frustrated that the Magic turned the ball over 16 times and allowed 64 paint points and 24 fast break points – the top three bullet points on the game plan going into the night – Magic center Nikola Vucevic remained optimistic that the squad can get things back on track. After all, just two weeks ago the Magic dug out of a different four-game losing skid with stirring home victories against Toronto and Detroit. Wrap up the six-game, 11-day trip with a win in Utah and Vucevic said the Magic can finally feel good about themselves once again.
``We should be better and do better,’’ Vucevic said late Monday night after piling up good individual numbers (18 points, 13 rebounds and three assists) in another loss. ``It’s a tough situation for us right now and all of us are disappointed with how we’re playing, but we have to keep working. Things can turn around quickly in this league. A few games ago, everything was great after we beat Toronto and Detroit and now it doesn’t feel as good. But that’s the way it is in this league. You have to be mentally strong and find it within yourself to get out of this hole.’’
Vucevic and Fournier, the longest-tenured players on the Magic, undoubtedly are trying to suppress memories of forgettable past Januarys. Too often, the Magic have seen promising starts to the season disappear at the start of a new year, going 2-12, 3-14, 2-13, 2-12, 4-12 and 3-10 over the past six Januarys (16-73). To avoid suffering a similar fate, Fournier knows the Magic will have to fight through the rigors of the road and a challenging schedule to persevere.
``Obviously, we know how it goes down and we know the frustration of (January slumps). It has to fuel us,’’ insisted Fournier, who said the Magic can take confidence into Wednesday considering that they beat the Jazz on a neutral court (in Mexico City) in mid-December. ``We cannot go through another January where the season is over by February.
``It’s really hard right now and things are hitting us hard in the head, but we have to have the big picture in mind,’’ he added. ``The schedule is eventually going to get better, and when we have a better schedule and things are a little easier, we have to keep that confidence. We can’t get away from what we’re doing.’’
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