Season Filled With Highs and Lows Has Magic Thinking About Future Potential

By John Denton
April 14, 2015

NEW YORK – For a microcosm of the Orlando Magic’s churning, twisting season one has to look back no further than the last six games – a head-scratching stretch where the team first compiled three straight inspiring victories and then followed it up with three puzzling defeats.

It was that kind of one-step-forward, one-step-back inconsistency that cost head coach Jacque Vaughn his job and an unevenness that kept Orlando on the outside of the playoffs for a third straight season. For every sign of growth and flash of potential there seemed to be an equal number of stumbles and struggles.

Why, just last week, the Magic were rolling along with a three-game winning streak – two of those victories coming against playoff-bound foes that still had plenty to play for. That stellar run seemed to suggest that Orlando had finally shed some of the growing pains that have haunted the youth-filled roster the past three seasons. And the Magic talked brazenly about finishing the season strong and taking some serious momentum into the summer.

Then, Toronto guard Lou Williams made the Magic pay for a critical defensive lapse in the final seconds by draining a 3-pointer that stopped Orlando’s winning streak like a bug hitting a windshield. From there, the Magic were historically bad in parts of an ugly loss to New York and their defense was uninspired most of Monday in a third straight defeat.

As the Magic (25-56) head into the season’s final game on Wednesday night in Brooklyn, they are left to wonder this: Are they the team that put together several inspiring runs during the season to lend hope that the young squad is poised to grow up and get back into playoff contention? Or are they still the one struggling to find the focus and maturity needed to be a consistent winner in the very near future?

``The whole season has been filled with a lot of ups and downs and we haven’t been able to stay consistent with what we do,’’ said Magic center Nikola Vucevic, the team’s leader in scoring and rebounding. ``We will show glimpses of doing the right things and then there are games where it just goes away. Maybe it’s the lack of experience, but we have to figure out a way to keep doing what makes us good over and over each night.’’

Heading into a third season of rebuilding following the 2012 departures of superstar center Dwight Howard and head coach Stan Van Gundy, Orlando expected to make sizeable growth this season. GM Rob Hennigan, who made masterful trades to acquire Vucevic and Tobias Harris and nailed draft picks with Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton, spoke before the season of the Magic playing more ``meaningful’’ games down the stretch.

That certainly looked possible with the way that Vucevic became a near all-star with his nightly double-double play on the low block; Harris worked to become more of an all-around player and posted career highs in several categories; Oladipo’s hard work in the offseason showed in improved shooting and better decision-making late in games; Payton, who became the NBA first rookie in 18 years to post triple-doubles in consecutive games on March 18 and 20, improved each month and became a candidate for the Rookie of the Year award; and trade acquisition Evan Fournier proved himself as another great find by blossoming into one of Orlando’s most efficient playmakers.

All of it, Oladipo said recently, has his thinking regularly about a time when Orlando is a mature powerhouse team that can win on a consistent basis.
``That’s a dream of mine and something that I think about all of the time,’’ Oladipo said of turning the Magic into winners. ``When that day comes it’s going to be a crazy feeling and we’ll just have to keep getting better. We’ll always have to want more and never be satisfied.’’

Orlando looked poised to be right there in the playoff mix at a couple of points this season, especially in the wretchedly bad Eastern Conference. Potentially three teams could finish at .500 or worse in the East and make the playoffs. Down to the next-to-last day of the regular-season finale, three teams were rancid records – Indiana (37-43), Brooklyn (37-44) and Miami (36-45) – were still in contention.

Harris, who is one of Orlando’s most professional players because of his no-nonsense approach to the game both in the locker room and on the floor, is irked that the Magic couldn’t seriously get in the playoff race with the bottom of the standings in such sad shape.

``I’d say that we weren’t too far away,’’ Harris said. ``We had a point in the season where we really could have turned this thing around and made a playoff push. There were points this season where we were neck-and-neck with Boston in the standings. The East (Conference) was so wide open and I thought we had plenty times when we could have made a push, but we didn’t and that’s disappointing. It’s something that we have to get back to.’’

Two major turning points in the season wrecked any chance that Orlando had of becoming serious playoff contenders. To wit:

  • Orlando survived an especially road schedule early in the season and sat at 9-14 on Dec. 6 after notching difficult away wins against Phoenix, Utah and Sacramento. Four days later, Orlando was poised to whip division rival Washington before a late collapse let the Wizards tie the game. Then, when the Magic had no big man positioned at the rim on the game’s final play, the Wizards pulled off a buzzer-beating alley oop to Bradley Beal for the win.

    That defeat did a number on the Magic’s mojo and the team dropped six of the next seven games and 23 of 29, including a 10-game skid that proved to be the ouster for Vaughn on Feb. 5. In what proved to be Vaughn’s last stand, the Magic scored 121 and 120 points in stunning defeats of Chicago and Houston on Jan. 12 and 14. However, the feel-good vibes would be short-lived as the 10-game skid and a stretch of 13 straight games where Orlando allowed at least 100 points followed.

  • When James Borrego was tabbed as the team’s interim coach on Feb. 5, several Magic players talked of the underachieving that had gone on all season and they had had hoped a new voice could lead to a late-season resurgence. Already familiar with the personnel in place, Borrego instantly commanded the respect of the players and he identified two areas he wanted to improve – interior defense and sharing the ball better.

    Those improvements came almost instantaneously as Orlando beat the Lakers in overtime in Borrego’s first game as a head coach. The Magic seemed poised to put something positive together in big home games against Chicago and Miami, but monumental collapses doomed them. The Magic led Chicago by six with 32 seconds to play and led the Heat by eight with 42 seconds to play – they had a 99.6 percent and 99.8 percent probability of winning by one diagnosis – and lost both games in crushing fashion.

    The Magic put on one of their best rallies of the season to beat Boston on March 8 and they hoped that a key game against Indiana on March 10 would announce themselves and entrants into the playoff race. But a fast start devolved into an unsightly 118-86 loss at the hands of the Pacers.

    Harris thinks that the Magic were way too fragile when hit with adversity in games. Rather than responding, too often the team would recoil, the sweet-shooting forward said.

    ``I just think if we were a little bit stronger mentally as a team we could have gotten over that barrier,’’ Harris said. ``There were times in the season when we lost seven or eight games and we just couldn’t get over that hump. I just think if we were a little bit more mentally focused, then we could have made that jump. Anybody in the East (Conference) could have and that’s proven with Boston making the jump. I just think it’s a lost opportunity for us.’’

    Vucevic, who has admittedly struggled with all of the losing that the Magic have done over the past three seasons, knows that brighter days are ahead for the Magic. He sees the way that Oladipo and Payton are growing as a backcourt and he smiles. He sees the promise of do-everything forward Aaron Gordon, the NBA’s second-youngest player this season at 19 years old. But Vucevic and Harris – both in their third seasons with the Magic – know that it’s time for the team to stop using the ``youthful’’ excuse and start delivering on the team’s massive promise. Doing that, both said, will involve the Magic becoming a more efficient and tougher – both physically and mentally – team.

    ``The young part – you can throw that out the window. Now, we’ve got to accept the fact that we’ve got to change this and turn this thing around,’’ Vucevic said. ``Rebuilding was fine for two or even three years, but we’ve got to find a way to turn it around because (youth) is not an excuse anymore.

    ``It’s not going to be easy and it’s going to take a lot of work to get better,’’ Vucevic continued. ``(Improvement) is not going to just happen because one more year went by. We can’t have this type of season like we’ve had the last few years. This is no fun. It takes a toll on you and it’s not fun when you are losing and have nothing to play for. So we’ve got to find a way to turn this thing around quickly.’’

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