Magic Know They Must Take Advantage of Home-Heavy Stretch

By John Denton
Dec. 6, 2017

ORLANDO – Road warriors much of the past four weeks, the Orlando Magic are getting the payoff in the form of an extended stretch of home games that could prove critical to their season.

Starting with Wednesday night’s home game against the Atlanta Hawks, Orlando is now in a stretch where it will play four of its next five games at the Amway Center. The Magic also have home games against Denver (Friday), the Los Angeles Clippers (Dec. 13) and Portland (Dec. 15) sandwiched around Saturday’s rematch against the Hawks in Atlanta.

``It’s definitely a big stretch because if you want to be good in this league, you have to win at home,’’ Magic center Nikola Vucevic said. ``I think, so far, we’ve been decent (at home), but hopefully we can use this stretch to get some wins and climb back up in the rankings.’’

The Magic came into Wednesday 5-5 at home, a somewhat disappointing record considering that they started the season 3-0 at the Amway Center. Adding to the comfort of being home, the Magic will be facing teams missing key pieces because of injuries. Atlanta was shorthanded on Wednesday without big men Dewayne Dedmon and John Collins), Denver won’t have center Nikola Jokic on Friday and the Clippers will be without Blake Griffin and Patrick Beverly and have also been hit hard by injuries.

``I did mention (to the team) that we’ve got a lot of home games coming up and it doesn’t matter who we’re playing in these games, we’ve got to take care of business,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. ``I think we’re .500 right now at home and clearly, we’ve got to do better there. We dropped a bunch of games of late on the road, but we started out strong with our road record. We’ll get that back under control and this is an opportunity now with a lot of home games to get ourselves back above .500 (overall).’’

Orlando recently wrapped up a grueling stretch where it played 10 of 14 games on the road. Going 3-11 during that span wiped out much of the cushion that the Magic built up during a feel-good 6-2 start to the season, but they are hoping to get back on track with the upcoming stretch of winnable games.

Prior to Wednesday, the Magic have had the NBA’s second-most difficult schedule based on the combined winning percentage of their opponents. In the coming weeks, the level of competition will soften a bit and the Magic hope to make their move.

``Definitely, we’ve got to take advantage of having some home games and take advantage of having a couple of days when we can get some practice in,’’ Magic point guard Elfrid Payton said. ``So we’re looking forward to this stretch.’’

VOOCH IS THE KEY: When the Magic struggle offensively, Vogel’s refrain is usually the same: Run plays through Vucevic because good things often happen when the big man touches the ball.

This season, the Magic are 8-5 when the 7-footer from Montenegro scores at least 15 points. However, when Vucevic fails to hit the 15-point plateau, Orlando is a dismal 2-10. That barometer held up on a recent back-to-back when Vucevic had 34 points in a Magic victory in New York, but they fell in Charlotte a night later when the big man mustered just 10 points.

Vogel likes centering the offense around Vucevic because he’s as skilled a passer as he is scorer.

``The more times he touches the ball, the more good things that happen,’’ Vogel said. ``It’s kind of a general theme that we have that when things are getting stagnant, get the ball in his hands someway – in the post or at the top of the key in the dribble-hand-off game because he usually makes good things happen.’’

Vucevic came into Wednesday’s game averaging a career-best 3.1 assists a game to go with his 16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds a night. He said he greatly appreciated Vogel’s confidence in him to make plays for others.

``To me, I think one of my best qualities on the court is being able to make the right play for my team,’’ Vucevic said. ``That’s something that I take a lot of pride in, using my basketball IQ to help the team. Sometimes it’s going to be with scoring, but sometimes it’s going to be making a pass or setting the right screen. Me as a big being able to step out, that also makes it difficult for other (big men). It’s nice to hear that coach recognizes (his passing ability) and I think it’s one of my best qualities and I’ll keep doing it.’’

STAR WARS: With Opening Night of ``Star Wars: The Last Jedi’’ a little more than a week away, the Magic designated Wednesday’s home game as ``Star Wars Night’’ – much to the delight of Vogel, Vucevic and Fournier, who consider themselves to be hard-core fans of the sci-fi series.

Vogel said ``Empire Strikes Back,’’ which debuted in 1980, was the first movie that he went to without his parents in Wildwood, N.J. He considers ``Return of the Jedi’’ and ``Revenge of the Sith’’ as his favorite movies in the ``Star Wars’’ series.

``But, look, they’re all good,’’ Vogel said. ``I loved `Rogue One’ and `The Force Awakens.’ (Fournier and Vucevic) are a little deeper with their level of passion than I am. I’m not going to wear `Star Wars’ gear and they do.’’

Vucevic, who wore a black Darth Vader shirt to Wednesday’s game, owns hundreds of ``Star Wars’’ collectibles, including the full Vader costume and the machine that changes his voice to sound more like James Earl Jones’ character. He said he first saw ``The Phantom Menace’’ in French as an 8-year-old while living in Belgium and fell in love with the story. He already has plans of going to watch ``The Last Jedi’’ on Dec. 15 after the Magic host the Portland Trail Blazers.

As for Fournier, he said his favorite ``Star Wars’’ character is Master Yoda because, ``he’s just the old, wise guy who is always right’’ and he added that ``he’s not strong physically, but super strong mentally with the Force.’’

Fournier said his least favorite character of the ``Star Wars’’ series is Samuel L. Jackson’s characterization of Mace Windu.

``I feel he is why Anakin (Shywalker) turned into Darth Vader, not trusting (Windu),’’ Fournier said, growing more passionate about the subject. ``But I’m not going to get into that debate because emotionally for me, it’s hard to talk about it. Seriously, every time I watch `Star Wars’ I hope the story is going to change.’’

UP NEXT: Orlando will most likely be back on the practice floor on Thursday to prepare for Friday’s home game against the Nuggets.

The Nuggets started Orlando’s season-worst nine-game losing streak in early November with a 125-107 win in Denver. Guard Jamal Murray scored 32 points that night to burn the Magic, which came into the Mile High City having played in Phoenix a night earlier.

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