Magic Potentially Missing Four Opening Night Starters Against Heat
By John Denton
Dec. 26, 2017
MIAMI – When the Orlando Magic whipped the rival Miami Heat in the Oct. 18 season-opener for both teams, they featured a deep and versatile starting lineup of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Terrence Ross and Elfrid Payton.
Across the way, the Heat countered with a formidable starting five of Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk, Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson.
When the Magic (11-23) and Heat (17-16) collide tonight in Miami, the two teams likely won’t even recognize one another because of injuries that have hit both hard.
The Magic won’t know for sure until tipoff tonight who they will have available to play, but this much they are sure of already: Life without Vucevic will not be easy. Vucevic, the longest-tenured Magic player on the roster, broke the second metacarpal in his left hand on Saturday night to become the latest Orlando player to go down with a devastating injury.
Orlando is holding out hope that mainstays Fournier (ankle sprain), Gordon (calf strain) and/or Jonathan Isaac (ankle sprain) will be able to return tonight and provide some relief to the injury-ravaged roster. Fournier has missed the last eight games, while Gordon has missed six of the last seven with a concussion and the calf strain. Isaac, who missed 17 straight games at one point, returned for two games before re-injuring his ankle and sitting out of the past two games.
``All three of those guys went through shootaround to sort of test-drive it and they will meet with the medical staff, talk about how (their injuries) felt and decide how we should respond to it,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. ``Then, I’ll make the decision tonight.’’
As for the Heat, they will once again be without Dion Waiters, James Johnson and Justise Winslow. Whiteside, who was originally ruled out for the game, went through Tuesday’s morning practice and is a game-time decision for Miami.
Vucevic, Orlando’s leading rebounder a sixth straight season and its third-highest scorer this season, had taken on an even greater role with the losses of Fournier, Gordon and Terrence Ross (knee sprain) out. He recently had the first triple-double of his career and the Magic had started running most of their offense through him.
Undoubtedly, the look of the Orlando offense will change will Vucevic on the shelf and Bismack Biyombo and Marreese Speights expected to see most of the reps at center now. Biyombo’s shortcomings on offense are many, but Orlando will look to him to set screens, catch lobs at the rim and be a force on the glass when possible. Speights is a capable scorer and 3-point shooter, but he has struggled with his shot much of December while bouncing in and out of the regular rotation.
``It’s a big loss (without Vucevic) and we just have to reshape our identity,’’ Vogel said. ``We’ll be a little more perimeter-oriented with some drive-and-kick (plays) and try to get the job done that way.’’
Payton, Orlando’s only healthy starter from the opener, has taken on a much bigger role of late in the wake of the injuries. In Saturday’s loss to the Washington Wizards, Payton scored a career-best 30 points to keep the Magic within striking distance much of the night. He topped his previous career-high of 28 points while not even attempting a 3-point shot. Instead, Payton relentlessly attacked the rim and made 11 of 16 shots and all eight of his free throw attempts.
He could use some help from Orlando’s top three scorers, namely Fournier, who drilled the game-sealing 3-pointer when the Magic topped the Heat on opening night. That victory was Orlando’s fourth in a row over the Heat in the Sunshine State series. The Magic lost last season’s opener to the Heat, but they bounced back to beat Miami in the final three meetings.
Fournier is hopeful that his return will come soon. If not tonight, hopefully by Thursday when Orlando hosts the Detroit Pistons.
``I’m feeling better, but there’s not much to say other than the fact that I’m making progress,’’ said Fournier, who is tied for the team lead in scoring at 18.3 points per game. ``We’ll see how it goes for tonight.’’
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