By John Denton Nov. 16, 2017
PORTLAND, Ore. – In any good sandwich, it’s the meat in the middle that usually makes all the difference in the meal. While the bread, leafy greens and condiments can add flavor and pizzazz, it’s the meaty middle that provides lasting sustenance and satiates the hunger.
Sandwiched between two rather difficult-to-digest four-game road trips, the Orlando Magic have two home games coming up that carry in inordinate amount of weight. Coming off a taxing trip to the West Coast and facing another challenging four-game Midwest/East Coast jaunt next week throughout the Thanksgiving holiday, the Magic (8-6) are hungry to get back to their winning ways when they host Utah (Saturday) and Indiana (Monday) in the coming days.
Orlando is fully aware that the two ``sandwich’’ games between trips come at a highly critical time when the team is almost desperate to relocate its early-season swagger and shot-making abilities. Win these next two games and the Magic will be able to get beyond the just-completed 1-3 trip to the West Coast and steady itself before heading out to Minnesota, Boston, Philadelphia and Indiana.
``It’s critical that we get these next two games at home,’’ said center Nikola Vucevic after his Magic dropped a 99-94 decision in Portland on Wednesday night. ``Right now we’re 8-7 and we need to stay above .500 before we go on this next trip. It’s very important that we get these next two. … It’s two big games coming up and then we have another tough road trip, but that’s part of this league. If you want to win in this league you’ve got to get through things like this. We have to find a way.’’
What the Magic could be finding is their team being back at full strength for the first time since an Opening Night victory over the Miami Heat. D.J. Augustin, the heady veteran point guard during much of Orlando’s stellar 6-2 start, could be back at practice on Friday after being shelved the past two weeks by a hamstring strain. Also, rookie standout Jonathan Isaac said his sprained ankle has recovered to the point that he hopes to be resuming basketball activities soon.
Those returns will be a shot in the arm for a Magic team that has dropped three straight games for the first time. Orlando started its West Coast swing with a win in Phoenix, but it got leveled a night later in Denver. The Magic were tied at the half against Golden State, but ultimately lost because of a third-quarter knockout punch. On Wednesday, Orlando surged ahead by 14 early on, but came unglued late in the second period and it couldn’t make enough plays down the stretch – offensively or defensively – against the Trail Blazers.
When the Magic surrendered 14 3-pointers to Damian Lillard (five), Shabazz Napier (five) and CJ McCollum (four) it forced them to walk the ball up offensively and face Portland’s much-improved half-court defense. Too often, the Magic’s movement – both with the ball and with players cutting to the rim – disappeared, resulting in 15 turnovers and too many choppy possessions.
``I thought we got stuck too much with just pick-and-roll and we weren’t getting everybody moving and involved to get different looks,’’ said Vucevic, who scored nine first-quarter points, but had just one basket after that. ``Whenever we made them work defensively, they struggled to contain us. We just needed to do a better job on that (offensive) end.’’
Augustin, who keyed the Magic’s stellar ball movement and high-scoring offense early in the season, has gotten to view the team’s offense from the vantage point the past two weeks while being out injured. He knows that the Magic must get back to being a team that sets one another up with the pass because of their lack of superstar talent individually.
``We’ve got to play unselfish,’’ said Augustin, who ramped up his side work to full-court sprinting on Wednesday. ``We were doing it early on and I don’t know what is going on, but I know guys want to play together and win. We know that’s the only way we can win – by moving the ball and sharing it like we did in the beginning.’’
Even though the Magic didn’t come through late on Wednesday, coach Frank Vogel said he was impressed with the grit his team showed by battling through the fatigue of a long trip and putting itself in position to potentially win. Vogel likes the resilience that the Magic have shown at various times this season, whether it was winning in Cleveland and in New Orleans after ugly losses or recently following up a two-game skid with defeats of New York and Phoenix.
Though his team sits just a game over .500 following six wins in the first eight games, Vogel’s spirit is unbroken that Orlando is still on the right track.
``You learn every game about your group and I like the team we have. We have a good team,’’ Vogel said confidently. ``We knew this was going to be a tough trip – we were hoping to get more than one win – but we have to lick our wounds and get back on the winning track when we get home.’’
Vogel is taking every measure to make sure the Magic are at full strength once they get back home, adjusting the team’s schedule for added rest. On the advice of the team’s medical staff, Vogel canceled the team’s shoot-around practice on Wednesday morning. Then, rather than fly back home immediately after the game and endure an early-morning arrival back in Central Florida, the Magic stayed the night in Portland and flew on Thursday in hopes that a good night’s sleep in a bed would aid in the recovery process.
``It’s obviously very important (to win back at home), but no panic. (Wednesday) was a tough game and it’s bad, but it is what it is and now we have to focus in on Utah,’’ Magic shooting guard Evan Fournier said. ``We have to make sure that we get our rest in because going from Portland to Orlando in one day (with three time zones of change), it’s a (pain).’’
Back at the Amway Center, where they are 4-2 thus far, the Magic will face a Utah team that is without defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert (knee sprain) and lost its first five road games of the season. The Jazz will be in Orlando on the second night of a back-to-back set of games after playing in Brooklyn on Friday. Also, it will be the fifth day of a seven-game road trip for Utah – something that the Magic are quite familiar with after just completing their eight-day swing through the Western Conference.
With another four-game, seven-day trip looming next week, the Magic know these ``sandwich’’ games between the two road jaunts are especially important.
``This is very important,’’ point guard Elfrid Payton said of the two-game stint at home. ``We’ve got to protect home court and capitalize on being home. We feel like these games are winnable and we’ve got to get these.’’
Added Augustin: ``We have two winnable games against Utah and Indiana at home and then we leave for another pretty hard road trip. Every game for us is important and we know that.’’
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