ORLANDO – For just the second time in his nearly five years with the Orlando Magic, guard Evan Fournier has made it 30-something games into the season and he still believes the squad has a legitimate shot at making the playoffs.
Sadly, however, Fournier wonders now if the Magic are squandering their big opportunity much the same way that they did following a strong start to the 2015-16 season. Maybe he’s just overreacting, but Fournier said now is not the time to be quiet as the Magic have dropped a pair of troubling decisions.
On the heels of a dispiriting loss Friday to the injury-ravaged Bulls in Chicago, Fournier opined that the Magic had better quickly come out of their funk before they see another golden opportunity to reach the playoffs slip through their collective grasp.
``We actually have a chance this year. We have to understand that,’’ stressed Fournier, who was clearly beside himself after Orlando dropped a 90-80 decision on Friday to a Chicago squad missing five of its players. ``But we’re not playing like a team that wants (a playoff berth), to be honest. If you just look at (Friday) – we just lost by (39 on Wednesday) and we don’t look like a team (on Friday) that is hungry for the playoffs. It’s that’s simple. Sometimes it just comes down to that.’’
The last time Fournier and the Magic ventured down this playoff-possible path, it was the 2015-16 season and the team was then coached by Scott Skiles. That Orlando squad was the best in the East that December and it started a promising 19-13. However, a 2-12 January followed, and February wasn’t much better, sabotaging the hopes of the postseason and resulting in a disappointing 35-win season.
Fast forward to this season, one in which the Magic have already notched impressive road wins in Boston, San Antonio, Miami and Los Angeles, and the Magic have shown flashes of becoming the team that could seriously contend for a spot in the postseason for the first time since 2012. However, following an impressive 12-9 stretch that got their record to 14-15, the Magic have started showing signs of backsliding. They lost at home to San Antonio by 39 points on Wednesday and there was little sense of urgency for much of Friday’s forgettable foray in Chicago.
Now, as the Magic (14-17 and losers of two straight) head into Sunday’s showdown against the rival Miami Heat (14-16 and winners of three straight) at the Amway Center, the Magic are wondering when they will shed their inconsistent ways and be able to put things together well enough to gain some steady traction for weeks at a time.
``It’s frustrating because you want to take steps forward,’’ said Magic center Nikola Vucevic, the only player on the Magic roster longer than Fournier. ``You don’t want to take one or two steps forward and then a step backward. We can’t keep going back and forth. We just have to understand that we have to stay consistent with what works for us. We have a lot of ups and downs and we’re just not consistent yet. It’s 30 games in, which is a lot of games, but it is still kind of early, so it’s on us to figure it out.’’
The Magic have plenty to figure out after a game in which they shot just 32.6 percent from the floor, made only eight of 33 3-pointers and even missed eight free throws. Orlando got very little production from starters Jonathan Isaac (five points and three steals) and D.J. Augustin (eight points and two assists) and key reserve Terrence Ross (two points, one-of-11 shooting) suffered through a dreadful night.
``I had this talk with (the team) on (Thursday),’’ head coach Steve Clifford said. ``Everybody likes to say when you lose, especially when you’re struggling to shoot the ball, it’s always people talking about effort. Half the time, it’s organization, which makes it look like you’re not trying. If you don’t know what you’re doing, and you can’t execute it in this league in 24 seconds, it’s going to look bad. You can’t be disorganized. You can’t have players out there making mistakes, and that’s what we had.’’
On the road much of the past month with a six-game road run that covered all four U.S. time zones and later a five-day trip to Mexico City for two more games, the Magic are hopeful that an extended stay at home will help to cure some of their woes at the Amway Center. The Magic are just 8-9 as the home team this season and two of those victories came at a neutral site in Mexico City.
Starting with Sunday’s game against the Heat, the Magic will play four games at the Amway Center in an eight-night stretch. Making this homestand even more important is the fact that Orlando starts a six-game, 11-night, four-time-zone road trip on Dec. 30.
``We have a stretch at home and we have to defend home court,’’ said Vucevic, who returned to action on Friday (19 points and 19 rebounds) after missing one game due to the birth of his first child. ``We haven’t been very good at home so far. But, if we can take care of business, game by game, we can get back on track.’’
A win on Sunday could go a long way toward getting the Magic back on track because of the significance of the game. Orlando already owns two victories over the rival Heat – 104-101 at the Amway Center in the season-opener and 105-90 in Miami on Dec. 4 when it outscored the Heat 59-40 in the second half. A third victory would clinch the season series and a potential tiebreaker should the Magic and Heat end up tied in an Eastern Conference race that is expected to go down to mid-April before it is decided.
For whatever reason, Fournier said, the Magic too often grow complacent following success. Hindsight has taught Fournier that complacency was the culprit of ruining the fast start in 2015-16. Now, he’s worried that it could be happening again to a Magic team that was feeling good about itself after winning two games in a row recently in Mexico City.
Keep it up, Fournier warned, and the Magic will find themselves being on the outside looking in come playoff time in mid-April once again.
``When you are a team like us and we want to prove ourselves, we have to come out thirsty – thirsty to be a good team and thirsty to make the playoffs,’’ said Fournier, who had 24 points, six assists and five 3-pointers in Friday’s loss in Chicago. ``And sometimes we act like we’ve been there before, and we haven’t. That’s the main problem.’’
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