Magic Need to Play With Playoff Intensity Every Game

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Evan Fournier is one of just eight players on the Orlando Magic’s roster who has actual playoff experience, appearing in four postseason games with the Denver Nuggets as a rookie in 2013.

So, Fournier knows what he’s talking about when he says that the Orlando Magic need to bring a ``playoff intensity’’ to the 37 games that remain in the season starting on Saturday night. And that intensity level needs to ratchet even higher, the fiery shooting guard insisted, when the Magic are facing teams around them in the Eastern Conference standings.

``We know that we have an opportunity (facing teams ahead of them in the standings) and we know that missed one the other night in Detroit,’’ said Fournier, referring to Orlando’s 120-115 overtime loss to the Pistons on Wednesday. ``That’s what I mean about playoff intensity and that’s what it could come down to. We’re going to play the Hawks four times, Washington two times, Charlotte two more and Brooklyn (two) more. So, we have to beat these teams if we want to get in (the playoffs).’’

Orlando came into Friday at 19-25 and 10thin the Eastern Conference – two games behind eighth-seeded Charlotte and a half-game back of the ninth-seeded Pistons. The Magic haven’t been in the playoffs since the 2011-12 season and the six-year postseason drought is the longest in the 30-year history of the franchise.

If the Magic are to end that run and reach the playoffs this spring, they need to avoid efforts like the one that they had on Wednesday in Detroit, Fournier said. While they set season highs for shooting in a quarter (75 percent in the first period) and for a half (67.5 percent in the opening 24 minutes), their defense struggled throughout the night. That simply can’t happen when wins are at a premium, the guard stressed.

``I thought the intensity (on Wednesday) was OK, but it wasn’t good enough,’’ said Fournier, whose Magic will still have 17 games remaining against the bottom nine seeds in the Eastern Conference. ``It wasn’t like a playoff (type of intensity). The intensity against Houston and Boston was really, really high and the details were sharp on everything and we had that blow-up mentality on every screen. It wasn’t the same (on Wednesday). We weren’t soft at all, but we weren’t playing super hard either.

``When we play teams like Detroit, Brooklyn and Charlotte – teams that we’re going to compete with to get in (the playoffs) – of course, we have to have that playoff intensity,’’ he added.

BEING HOME IS TWICE AS NICE: In the NBA, back-to-back sets of games are usually the bane of most players’ and coaches’ existence. But the league has found a way to somewhat soften the burden of playing games on consecutive nights by scheduling more back-to-backs where teams play both games in their home arena.

The phenomenon is relatively new in the NBA, and teams such as the Magic have started to embrace the trend. Orlando started its third home/home back-to-back on Friday by hosting the Brooklyn Nets. On Saturday, the Magic will be home again while facing the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks. Earlier in the season, Orlando swept the Lakers and Knicks on Nov. 17-18 and beat both the Celtics and Rockets this past weekend.

``You don’t end up with one of those `2 a.m.-landing-somewhere’ things and (players) get to sleep in their own beds,’’ said Magic coach Steve Clifford, referring to previous instances when his team had to travel between games. ``It’s never easy. Milwaukee is (in Orlando) now and they’ll be better rested (than the Magic), but it’s certainly much better than having to travel.’’

According to research conducted by future Magic Hall of Famer and Fox Sports Florida play-by-play voice David Steele, Orlando will have played 21 home/home back-to-backs by Sunday. In the previous 20, they had seven sweeps, eight splits and have been swept five times. Over those 40 games, the Magic are 12-8 on the first night and 10-10 on the second night.

IWUNDU EARNING PRAISE: When Clifford went to Wes Iwundu late in overtime on Wednesday and the Magic needed a defensive stop to have a shot of tying up the game, the second-year forward came through in a big way. Despite getting hit by an Andre Drummond screen, Iwundu hustled back into the play and swatted Reggie Jackson’s floater off the backboard.

Said Clifford of Iwundu’s effort: ``A great play. Not a good play, but a great play.’’

Plays like that have helped Iwundu move ahead of veteran wing Jonathon Simmons in the Magic’s regular rotation. Simmons came into Friday having not played in the previous four games, while Iwundu has played 16, 13, 15 and 17 minutes in the most recent four games.

While not as dynamic a scorer, Iwundu has had a greater impact on his teammates this season than Simmons, Clifford said. Advanced analytics bear that out, as well. Simmons was slowed early on by offseason surgery on his right wrist and he is by no means out of the rotation for good, Clifford said.

``We’ve just played better with Wes on the floor,’’ Clifford said. ``Nothing against Jonathon. Jonathon is a good player and as I’ve said before – I think not being able to touch a ball all summer (hurt his game) and he’s struggled to shoot the ball. We haven’t played well when he’s been on the floor. With Wes, by the nature of how he plays, he’s very good defensively and his range shooting is getting better. He’s a decision-maker, a ball-mover and a versatile defender. I just look at the groups and when Wes has played – regardless of who he has played with – we’ve played well. So, for right now, that’s how it is. Over 82 games, they’ll all get another chance.’’

UP NEXT: As mentioned earlier, the Magic will host the Bucks on Saturday in the second half of a home/home back-to-back set of games at the Amway Center. While the Magic have been very good on the first night of back-to-backs this season (7-2), the second night in those scenarios have been a difficulty (3-6).

Further complicating matters are the strength of the Bucks and the rest advantage that they will have on Saturday. Milwaukee, which hasn’t played since Wednesday’s 111-101 victory in Memphis, has won three straight and eight of 10 to zoom to the top of the Eastern Conference.

The Bucks whipped the Magic 113-91 on Oct. 27 in Milwaukee in the first meeting of the season between the two teams.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.