ORLANDO – Whereas there might have been doubt before with an Orlando Magic team fooled by false starts in the past, there is now a bubbling belief. Whereas there might have been a fragility and a tendency to cave, now there is a toughness and a pattern of fighting regardless the odds. And whereas there might have been excuses and allowances before, the standard now is a no-nonsense accountability.
Sure, the Magic are a game shy of .500 and only 15 games into the NBA’s marathon-like regular season, but already there is a growing belief in their locker room that things have changed for the better. The franchise’s rebuild has painfully reached Year 7, but finally things look and feel dramatically different and the Magic have the play on the court to back it up.
Not that the team still doesn’t need to be put in its place from time to time – as head coach Steve Clifford did on Friday. As his Magic (7-8) were wrapping up preparations for Saturday’s highly anticipated home game against LeBron James and the surging Los Angeles Lakers (8-6), Clifford chided his team for its sloppiness in practice.
As Clifford reminded the team that it had yet to accomplish much at all, center Nikola Vucevic – the longest-tenured player on the team – reveled in delight. Too often, he’s seen the Magic handle early-season success poorly and he liked Clifford holding the team accountable. In many ways, Vucevic said, the squad has already started to take on the personality of its old-school, demanding head coach.
``Even today, he said we’re still 7-8 and haven’t achieved anything. Yes, we’ve played better, but it’s still early in the (season),’’ said Vucevic, who had 30 points in Orlando’s defeat of Philadelphia on Wednesday.
``We’re definitely buying into (Clifford’s) mentality and how he wants us to be,’’ the 7foot center added. ``He’s really trying to change some of the ways that we’ve had here where it would be like, `We lost a close one to a good team and it’s OK.’ He’s trying to get rid of that and that’s important because every guy should hold himself accountable. Only accept wins and losses. For us, improvement is important, but really all that matters is how many games did we win. We’re buying into that and hopefully we keep it up.’’
For anyone looking for signs of the Magic’s improved toughness under Clifford, just look at how the squad has responded to adversity thus far. They followed up a lopsided loss to Charlotte with a strong effort in Philadelphia and a gritty victory in Boston. After suffering through a four-game losing skid that could have soured the season before mid-November, the Magic players and coaches held a fiery team meeting that undoubtedly played a role in things turning around. What followed was a wire-to-wire win in San Antonio and five victories over the next seven games.
Another telling point of the Magic’s improvement is how they have hung in despite being in difficult situations in the middle of games – something that wasn’t always the case last season when Orlando dropped seven games by 20-or-more points.
Down five with 30 seconds to play against Cleveland on Nov. 5, Orlando’s win probability was a slim 1.4 percent, but it still found a way to win 102-100. And on Wednesday, the Magic didn’t blink when trailing powerful Philadelphia by 16 points just minutes into the fourth quarter. The franchise responded with a jaw-dropping 21 consecutive points – the second-longest such uninterrupted run in the NBA this season – and ultimately won 111-106 for the third-largest fourth-quarter comeback in franchise history.
``The way we’re playing, we’re playing the right way and we’re playing together,’’ said guard Terrence Ross, one of the heroes from Wednesday with his game-winning 3-pointer. ``We have a lot of momentum going and we’re just trying to build off that by creating the right habits so that we can sustain this for as long as possible.’’
Of course, the Magic have been led to believe that before only to be fooled. Orlando wrapped up 2015 at an encouraging 19-13 only to fall flat in January and February and end that season 35-47. Last season, the Magic brought back mostly the same core of the team under then-coach Frank Vogel and started 6-2 and 8-4. However, a lethal combination of early-season injuries and a toughening schedule, sent the Magic reeling and they never recovered in a disappointing 25-57 season.
That won’t happen this season, forward Aaron Gordon predicted, because of the way the Magic are playing this season and the way they fight in games no matter the score.
``We’ve developed a sustainable way of playing,’’ said Gordon, who is in one of the best five-game stretches of his five-year career with the Magic. ``Last year, we were reliant on shot-making alone. When we weren’t making shots, we weren’t winning. This year, it’s more about holding everybody accountable to the way that we need to play.’’
The Magic will certainly need to keep up the mindset of toughness and accountability what with James and the Lakers making their one appearance at the Amway Center on Saturday night. The Lakers have won four straight – largely because of a host of spectacular performances from James, who has meshed nicely with his new Lakers teammates. According to BasketballReference.com, James’ 44-point, 10-rebound and nine-assist night on Wednesday was statistically the seventh-best most efficient game of his career. In that beating of Portland, James made 13 of 19 field goals, five of six 3-pointers and 13 of 15 free throws. Also, that performance allowed him to move past Wilt Chamberlain for fifth all-time in scoring with 31,425 points.
``He’s incredible, first of all, because of his size,’’ Clifford said. ``But then it’s his skill level, it’s his basketball IQ, decision making and competitive spirit. It’s all just so extraordinary and he’s another one of those guys who gets better every year.’’
While Clifford raved about the Lakers’ pace, depth and the versatility of their lineups, the coach has tried to keep his team’s focus on its own roster of late. Repeatedly, Clifford has stressed that there’s a formula to how the Magic have to play to be successful and it goes something like this: A stingy, smothering defense that ranks in the NBA’s top 10, combined with an offense that relies on player and ball movement, and one that makes open shots. That collective effort worked in winning in San Antonio for just the second time in a decade and it worked in whipping a Philadelphia roster packed with stars Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Now, the Magic will try to do the same against James, a four-time MVP.
``We know how we have to do it and we have an understanding of what it will take,’’ Clifford said of how Orlando must play to be successful. ``Then, it just comes down to how strong is the belief and the commitment? And how far will we go to do that?’’
To a man, Magic players often point to Clifford’s wealth of knowledge in the NBA as proof that he knows what it takes for teams to be successful. Seeing success early in the season, as the Magic have, had them believing that it they follow Clifford’s formula of team-first basketball and all-out commitment that they can beat any NBA foe. They saw that with Wednesday’s rally against Philadelphia and hope that it rings true again on Saturday against James and the Lakers.
``I want us to grow to the place where we expect that, and we expect to beat the best teams in this league,’’ said second-year forward Jonathan Isaac, whose daring and spectacular block of an Embiid dunk on Wednesday was a game-turning moment. ``We will be one of the best teams in this league when we continue to put it together and play as a team. (The Philadelphia win) is an example of what can take place this entire season.’’
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