ORLANDO – Just beyond the quarter poll of the NBA’s marathon-like regular season, and the Orlando Magic have already learned this about themselves: There’s a growing belief in their locker room that they have the requisite talent, toughness and togetherness to do something special.
Though they sit at a pedestrian 11-12 following a 2-3 road trip that had the makings of something much more substantial, the Magic have displayed a distinct resiliency in how they have bounced back from bad losses and also in how they have hung tough and won in some of the NBA’s most hostile environments.
Finally, veteran guard Evan Fournier said, the Magic have developed a style of play and an accountability that is sustainable and should keep them from falling off like in years prior after starting strong. At long last, this year, Fournier stressed, is different.
``We’re a different team than last year, so I trust this team,’’ said Fournier, who has yet to play for a winner in four previous seasons in Orlando. ``We’ve had a tough schedule so far, but I’m really confident in what this team is going to bring every night.’’
Fournier knows what the Magic bring to the table every night because of the high expectations set by no-nonsense, demanding head coach Steve Clifford. Gone are the days where the Magic simply hope to compete with powerhouse teams and try to pull out victories in the end. Clifford demands that this Magic squad play a certain way – moving the ball on offense, battling on the boards and fighting defensively throughout – and if it doesn’t, it usually hears about it with fiery postgame and film-session rants filled with blue language and the occasional flying object in the locker room.
Clifford was an assistant coach on the last Magic team to reach the playoffs in 2012, and when he took Orlando’s head coaching job in late May, he immediately sensed players’ desperate desires to win. The team has backed up the will to win with the will to work, and the veteran coach likes what he has seen so far.
``I’m happy with the way that we’re playing in many ways,’’ said Clifford, a veteran of 19 NBA seasons as a scout, an assistant coach and a head coach and someone who admittedly doesn’t handle losing very well. ``We’ve made good strides on both sides of the ball and I’ve seen a lot of growth within our group.
``I think this is a team that can keep getting better and better if we have the right approach,’’ added Clifford, whose Magic don’t play again until Tuesday in Miami. ``I like the way that we work, and I think we have guys who badly want to win. If you look at (the difficulty) of our schedule, especially after starting 2-6, I’m really pleased.’’
Clifford has to be pleased, as well, with how the Magic’s wealth of talent has meshed thus far. Nikola Vucevic – the team leader in scoring (21 points per game) and rebounding (11.3 rebounds) – has proven to be one of the most productive big men in the league, while Terrence Ross (14.3 points per game) has been one of the NBA’s most consistently potent reserves.
D.J. Augustin, who leads the league in fewest turnovers among starting point guards and is posting 10.6 points and 5.4 assists a game, has answered plenty of the questions regarding his position, while Aaron Gordon (16.1 points and 7.2 rebounds) and Jonathan Isaac (8.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.06 blocks) have evolved into a suffocating one-two punch defensively for opposing wing scorers. And even though Fournier (15.0 points and 4.0 assists) has been better offensively in years past, he’s still the player Orlando wants to have the ball at the end of close games.
``I think compared to some of the past years, we’ve taken a big step forward,’’ said Vucevic, who has 13 20-point games and 15 10-rebound games and recently won the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award. ``We’re (one game) under .500, but we’ve played some good teams and had some really big wins. I really see us taking some big steps forward. Obviously, there’s still a lot of work to do, but we’re headed in a good direction.’’
Added Gordon, who is playing the most efficient basketball of his career and someone who has positioned himself to be on the NBA’s All-Defense team after successfully guarding LeBron James (twice), Kevin Durant (for a half before injuring his back), Kawhi Leonard, Ben Simmons and Paul Millsap: ``We’ve got a lot of good players on this team and we play smart basketball. We’re playing well right now. We’ve put what we’ve done so far behind us and the focus is on what’s ahead of us.’’
Vucevic and Fournier, the two longest-tenured players on the Magic have been down this path before only to be disappointed in a big way. In 2015-16 while playing under former head coach Scott Skiles, the Magic made it through December at 19-13 and seemed on their way to the playoffs only to collapse that January and limp to the finish line with just 35 wins. Last season, former head coach Frank Vogel got the Magic off to 6-2 and 8-4 starts only to see injuries hit just as the schedule grew serious teeth. Again, a strong start devolved into a poor finish that left the franchise on the outside of the playoffs for a sixth straight year.
``We’ve had some really big wins – wins that last year we probably never thought we could get,’’ said Vucevic, referring to Orlando beating the Celtics, Spurs and Lakers on the road and defeating the Heat and 76ers at the Amway Center. ``Our confidence is growing. (Clifford) has been a huge part of that. We talk about it every day in practice and while watching film the things that we have to do to win. Now, we’ve just got to keep it up.’’
Fresh off a five-game, nine-night road trip in which they suffered a couple of gut-punch losses to Golden State and Portland, the Magic will get three off nights to rest up for another taxing stretch that could go a long way in defining what kind of season the team is capable of. After facing the rival Heat in South Florida on Tuesday, Orlando will return home to do battle with a surging Denver team that whipped it soundly last week in the Mile High City. Following a Friday home game against the rugged Indiana Pacers, the Magic hit the road again for an extended stretch in Dallas (versus the Mavs on Dec. 10) and in Mexico City (for Dec. 13 and 15 games against Chicago and Utah).
``We have to keep making progress because it’s a long season and we have to be willing to learn every day,’’ said Ross, who has given the Magic a distinct injection of swagger with his shot-making prowess off the bench. ``I think everybody has bought in to what we’re doing.
``We’ve all bought in to the system and how we’re supposed to play, and we just have to do a better job of bringing that every night,’’ added Ross, who already has five 20-point efforts this season.
Vucevic, 28 and someone who is about to become a first-time father within the next month, should be in line for the first all-star berth of his eight-year NBA career if the Magic can keep winning. For the first time in many seasons, he is of the strong belief that the Magic aren’t going away any time soon. He knows that Clifford won’t stand for slippage and the hunger for success among the players in his locker room is too strong to allow that to happen. He said the Magic know now what it’s going to take for them to be successful on a nightly basis and he doesn’t see them deviating from that path.
``I think the biggest thing for us has been figuring out our identity and we’re establishing a way to play that we can sustain for 82 games,’’ said Vucevic, one of three captains along with Fournier and Gordon. ``You’re not always going to have those hot-shooting nights, but we’ve gotten to where we can find different ways to win games. Obviously, it’s not there yet to where we can be a really good team, but we’ve shown we’re headed that way. Now, it’s just about sustaining it. I think we can do that.’’
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