By John Denton Jan. 5, 2018
ORLANDO – To compare where the Orlando Magic are now to where they were back on Oct. 21 in Cleveland is akin to comparing four-time MVP LeBron James to a G League call-up simply trying to survive in the NBA.
Unquestionably, ``King’’ James still reigns in the NBA, but that certainly was not the case some 10 weeks ago when his Cavaliers faced the red-hot Magic for the first time this season. That night, Orlando hit eight first-quarter 3-pointers, drilled 17 in the game and held a lead as large as 37 points – an advantage so one-sided that James and fellow all-stars Kevin Love and Dwyane Wade were pulled for good with 8:21 to play.
Orlando’s 114-93 romp ended the its long-running futility against Cleveland and James. Prior to that game, the Magic had dropped 17 straight games to Cleveland and 18 in a row to James – a streak that spanned his time with Miami and Cleveland.
To Magic head coach Frank Vogel, the memory of that game is nothing but pleasant because the team shared the ball, played with great trust and displayed supreme confidence.
``The ball movement was great and we were able to bring two (defenders) to the ball pretty consistently by being in attack mode off our screening action,’’ Vogel remembered. ``And we were making shots. When you make shots, the closeouts are hotter and it’s easier to get better ball movement when they have to run out to the 3-point line with more urgency.’’
That heady Magic victory was the first of three straight wins and it paved the way for their encouraging 6-2 start to the season. Sadly, the Magic’s run would not last and wins like the one they had against Cleveland are but a distant memory.
Orlando (12-27) heads into Saturday night’s rematch against Cleveland (25-13) having dropped three straight games and 12 of the last 13. Once 8-4 and dropping hints that it might be ready to compete with Cleveland in the Eastern Conference, the Magic have since lost 23 of 27 games. Tipoff on Saturday at the Amway Center is just after 7 p.m.
Great offense was behind the rout of Cleveland back in October just as poor offense has been the reason behind the Magic’s struggles of late. Since halftime last Saturday, when Orlando headed to its locker room with a commanding 66-50 lead over Miami, it has made just 38.2 percent of its shots and only 22.1 percent of the tries from 3-point range in 10 quarters against the Heat, Nets and Rockets.
``The switching defense has disrupted our rhythm offensively and we played a lot of (isolation) ball and we took a lot of long twos,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who has made just six of 26 shots and is zero for 10 from 3-point range in the past two games. ``And the few good looks that we’ve had, we missed them because we were basically out of rhythm. That’s explains why we have struggled.’’
The Magic are hopeful that a break in the schedule will help them regain their rhythm and confidence offensively before facing Cleveland once again. Orlando has used the past two days to review footage of their offensive breakdowns and go through a spirited practice session on Friday. Vogel has been on the team to play more with pass, meaning teammates need to drive harder with the intent of making plays for others, screen better and cut with more vigor. Vogel saw signs on Friday of the Magic potentially coming out of their recent offensive slump.
``We’ve got to get some confidence back and the guys really had a spirited practice today,’’ Vogel said on Friday. ``The ball moved well and guys were making shots. You need that when you are struggling a little bit. You’ve got to feel all of those things.’’
Orlando will likely get a totally different look from Cleveland what with the expected return of point guard Isaiah Thomas, who will see action in his second game after missing much of the first three months of the season because of a hip injury. Thomas, who was acquired in the offseason deal that shipped Kyrie Irving to Boston, made his 2017-18 season debut on Tuesday against Portland and scored 17 points in 19 minutes. The 5-foot-9 Thomas was one of the league’s most dynamic players last season with the Celtics, scoring 28.9 points per game. Vogel said the addition of Thomas will make a Cleveland team already possessing great firepower with James (27.5 ppg.), Love (19.6 ppg.) and Wade (11.1 ppg.) even more dangerous.
``He’s arguably the toughest point guard in the league to cover. He’s lights out,’’ Vogel raved. ``He can really score the ball and is you breathe on him he’s great at drawing fouls. He’s got that burst to the basket out of the pick-and-roll game if you close out too hot to him. And he’s an unbelievable playmaker and passer with the way he finds seams and kicks the ball out to shooters, cutters or throwing the lob. He really has it all and is one of the most impressive point guards in the league, one of the most difficult to (account) for and I’m a big fan.’’
Vogel would also be a big fan of his team if it can somehow rediscover the confidence, court awareness and selflessness that it displayed 10 weeks ago in the lopsided victory in Cleveland. The coach has been racking his brain for days to try and find solutions to shake his squad out of its offensive slump. Undoubtedly, Vogel hopes that simply seeing Cleveland again and remembering how well the Magic played against it early in the season will provide some answers.
``Checking all the boxes,’’ he said. ``From (a play-calling) standpoint, from a management of practice standpoint, an intensity-of-practice standpoint and looking to see if there are things schematically things that we can do better to make things easier. We’ve been showing them the tape of areas that are causing some of the problems and guys are getting up extra shots. All of the above, really, to try and get these guys feeling confident and playing good basketball again.’’
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