Magic Remain Confident They Will Get Back on Track

Magic still very much in playoff race
by John Denton

ORLANDO – The Orlando Magic hurtled into the NBA’s official halfway point and crashed with a resounding thud on Wednesday night, but still some perspective is in order for a season with 41 games left to play.

Forty-one games in, the Magic sit at 17-24 and just 2 ½ games out of the final playoff spot in the pedestrian Eastern Conference. Here’s where that much-needed perspective comes in: last season, the Magic were 12-29 and 9 ½ games out of that No. 8 spot by the midpoint and for all intents and purposes playing for ping-pong balls in the NBA Draft Lottery.

For an Orlando franchise understandably staggered by four straight losses and a grueling 1-5 road trip – with three of those defeats coming after they had built leads of at least 15 points early in the games – any sort of good news is needed right now. The worst of their schedule is behind them and there’s still a strong belief that they can recapture the good vibes that they played with early in the season – even after Wednesday’s second-half collapse in a 106-93 loss to the Utah Jazz.

``Ending the trip like this, it’s really hard, but we’re still in the race and still in the playoff (chase),’’ said guard Evan Fournier, a veteran of 4 ½ Magic seasons. ``A lot of stuff can still happen. It’s going to feel good to be back in Orlando. I mean, the biggest thing, we just have to figure out when we have a lead, we have to keep it.’’

That’s certainly a good place to start for a squad that has begged for balance all season. Head coach Steve Clifford has predominantly stuck with a starting five of Nikola Vucevic, D.J. Augustin, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Fournier most of the season, and that group has been mostly effective and occasionally explosive.

However, Clifford has had to reshuffle his reserves more than a casino dealer does a deck of cards, and rarely has he been able to come up with a consistent winner in the group. Any lineup not featuring Vucevic and/or Augustin – statistically Orlando’s two most consistent players all season – has struggled mightily, causing the entire team’s confidence to wane.

While some feel that Magic have already surpassed the low expectations set for them prior to the season, Clifford actually believes the squad has somewhat underachieved based on the talent, toughness and togetherness of the team – a blunt message he delivered to the team prior to a recent game in Chicago.

The Magic know full well that their best is good enough to beat anyone in the NBA and they have displayed that in impressive wins against Boston, Toronto, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers (twice). But they also have dropped games against the Bulls, Suns and Wizards and have folded far too often then opposing teams ratchet up the physicality and intensity late in games.

While the veteran head coach has been plenty pleased with the strides made thus far, he knows the Magic have a way to go over the final 41 games to be taken seriously as a playoff contender.

``Overall, I’m happy with the work part and we have a number of very serious players who badly want to win,’’ said Clifford, who experimented with Isaiah Briscoe at backup point guard on Wednesday in place of Jonathon Simmons or Jerian Grant. ``We have a way that we can play that will give us a chance every night.

``The challenge, obviously, has been, the longer that we go, it’s been finding a way to put 48 good minutes together night in and night out,’’ Clifford continued. ``The bottom line is we have to get better play from more people. The nights that we do, we’re fine, but that’s every team in this league. The easy thing is when we say, `we can beat the best teams.’ Well, every team can beat the best teams, but that’s not what the NBA is about. The NBA is about being able to beat a really good team on Friday and come back and beat another good team on Sunday. That shows the talent and depth that you have.’’

For the most part, the Magic know what they have in veterans Vucevic, Fournier, Augustin and Ross and they continue to push for Gordon to keep his focus on defense, rebounding and using his athleticism for cuts and rim runs. Regardless of what happens to the team’s playoff fortunes going forward, Orlando’s front-office leadership of President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond and the coaching staff will continue to push for progress from young, foundational pieces Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba.

Isaac, a nearly 7-foot forward who seems to have shed the ankle issues that dogged him last season, came into Wednesday in a massive shooting slump as foes have dared him to put up shots from the perimeter. But he showed some positive signs against the Jazz by burying a corner 3-pointer to open the game and another late in the first half after Utah had pulled within 12. Isaac scored nine points on Wednesday – all of them in the first half – and he knows full well he’ll need to improve upon a shooting stroke that has him at40.4 percent from the floor and 28.4 percent from 3-point range through 35 games played.

As for Bamba – who didn’t play on Wednesday because of a sore left foot – he clearly needs more bulk and muscle to combine with his 7-foot height and his expansive 7-foot, 10-inch wingspan. Also, the No. 6 pick from last June’s talent-rich NBA Draft needs to play with more energy and aggression, Clifford continues to say. Already a drastically different player than the one who started the season, Bamba feels he can make another big jump over the final 41 games of his rookie season.

``Offensively, it’s just about my overall energy and getting in that rhythm and flow and when the defense collapses, I have to trust my teammates,’’ said Bamba, who has averaged 6.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and a team-best 1.38 blocked shots in 16.6 minutes a game. ``Defensively, it’s just about being that presence and I feel like I’ve made some strides as far as blocking shots.

``Not a different player (over the next 41 games), but one who just contributes more toward winning,’’ Bamba added. ``That’s a lot of what the coaching staff is asking of me and I think a lot of it will come just from experience.’’

Twice before this season, the Magic responded to trying four-game losing streaks with some of their best basketball. At 2-6 early on, Orlando went to San Antonio and won in impressive fashion and ripped off a 7-2 streak. Later, after another four-game skid from Dec. 19-26 that dropped them to a perilous 14-19, Orlando conjured up a rout of Toronto and a buzzer-beating defeat of Detroit.

Then, came a six-game, 11-day road trip that bloodied and battered the Magic once again. Orlando split the first two lopsided games, losing in Charlotte and winning in Chicago. Then came defeats against the Timberwolves, Clippers, Kings and Jazz where the Magic frittered away leads of 19, 15, four and 21 points as they broke their starting lineup.

The second half of the season starts in difficult fashion for the Magic this weekend. They will host the Boston Celtics on Saturday and the Houston Rockets on Sunday in challenging home/home back-to-back set of games. Those are the kinds of challenges that the Magic have met head on all season, and they’ll need to respond in a big way once again to show they can be legitimate postseason contenders going forward.

Teams facing talent and experience deficits often struggle putting together consistent runs from game to game, and that’s certainly been the case for the Magic. But what is most baffling to them is how they can occasionally be both potent and impotent within the same game. That has to change going forward, Gordon insisted.

``It shows that we’re capable, but we’ve got a long way to go,’’ he noted. ``We’ve just got to close games out … and find ways to win games where we have big leads.’’

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.