Staying Within Team's System Key for Gordon

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

MEXICO CITY – Even after completing a couple of spirited waves of interview sessions, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon was mobbed by more Mexican media on Wednesday, all of them armed with questions.

What’s going through your mind when you’re dunking? What’s your favorite type of Mexican food? What’s your favorite Nikes to wear on and off the basketball court?

Similarly, the Magic have some questions regarding the 6-foot-9, 220-pound Gordon: How do they get him to successfully walk the fine line of being an aggressive driving force on the team without overdoing it and being mistake-prone? How do they more often get him to be the dominant, do-everything type of player that he is when the team wins instead of the one who often struggles when the team is sputtering? How do they best take advantage of Gordon’s rare combination of length and strength and will and skill and get him more momentum-swinging easy baskets?

Those are questions that Gordon – someone who admittedly agonizes over his own performances in his downtime – asks himself all the time. Usually, those questions bring him back to one place.

``I’ve just got to continue to make the right play,’’ Gordon said on the fringes of the basketball court at the Arena de Ciudad Mexico where his Magic (12-15) will face the slumping Chicago Bulls (6-22) on Thursday (9:30 p.m. ET) as part of the NBA Mexico City Games 2018.

``My role right now is about making the right play and stepping up on defense for this team,’’ Gordon added. ``That’s what it really comes down to. (His Magic teammates) are going to do a great job looking for me and getting me the ball, but it’s about me executing.’’

Executing has been something of a struggle of late for the Magic, losers of three straight for the first time since late October. They have sputtered badly in lopsided losses to Indiana and Dallas and are hoping to use the two games in Mexico City – Orlando also faces Utah on Saturday afternoon – to find their way again. As recently as a week ago, the Magic had a modest two-game winning streak and they were close to surging above .500 before an overtime loss to Denver.

A bit of good news for the Magic came on Wednesday when the team learned that standout guard Evan Fournier is expected to rejoin the team soon and should be ready to play against the Bulls on Thursday. Fournier, who missed Orlando’s loss in Dallas on Monday, flew to Mexico City on Wednesday to rejoin his teammates.

Clifford, a veteran of the NBA for 19 seasons, is hoping the hype and hoopla surrounding the two games in Mexico City can energize his team and bring out its best.

``Any team that has the right attitude can change things quickly in this league,’’ Clifford said. ``You can go from bad to good or good to bad quickly depending on your approach. … So much of the NBA is about experiences and challenges, but I think being down here (in Mexico) will be fun for our team. These are also two important games also for our team. I’m hoping we can do both – enjoy our time here and also take care of business by playing two good games.’’

No player has been more of a barometer as to whether the Magic play well or struggle this season than Gordon, the fifth-year pro who signed a lucrative contract extension last July.

In the 11 Orlando wins that he’s played in thus far, Gordon has averaged 20.3 points while shooting a stellar 54 percent from the floor and 52.9 percent from the 3-point line. Some of his best performances all season (31 points and 4 3-pointers against New York; 26 and 20 with seven combined 3-pointers against Miami; 26 and four threes against San Antonio; 23 and three 3-pointers against Cleveland) have come in Magic wins as he’s stroked shots well from the 3-point line.

However, those numbers have predominantly taken a nosedive when the Magic have struggled. In the 14 losses that he’s played in Gordon has averaged 13.2 points while shooting just 40.2 percent from the floor and a paltry 25.8 percent from 3-point range.

Monday’s loss in Dallas – when the Magic needed a big effort from Gordon to potentially make up for the loss of Fournier – was another case of him and the team struggling simultaneously. Though he did a solid job of frustrating hot-shot rookie Luka Doncic (two-of-12 shooting), Gordon missed his first six shots and his first field goal make didn’t come until the 2:51 mark of the second quarter. And when he made just four of 15 shots in the game, the Magic mostly followed suit and mustered a season-low 76 points as a team.

``We need Aaron to score the ball for us because he’s obviously a big part of what we do,’’ said center Nikola Vucevic, who also uncharacteristically struggled in Monday’s loss. ``Aaron can score in many different ways, especially when he plays (power forward) because that’s when he’s the most comfortable and confident. He can use his quickness and he’s also a lot stronger than a lot of those guys.

``So, we’ve got to use him different ways and find different ways to get him going,’’ Vucevic added. ``Our offense has obviously struggled the last couple of games, so all of us need to do a better job of getting each other involved.’’

From the time he was hired last May, Clifford has worked with Gordon to try and coax him to be a more well-rounded player who made others around him better. Gordon responded favorably to that challenge and thus far he’s averaged a career-high in assists (2.8) while his scoring (16.3), rebounding (7.5), steals (1.0) and blocks (0.8) are either at or near the career-best numbers he posted last season. Also, Gordon is easily the Magic’s best on-ball defender, having recently completed a six-game stretch where he guarded LeBron James (twice), Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Ben Simmons and Paul Millsap with great success.

Asked about Gordon needing to play within himself and keep his focus on defense and rebounding, Clifford said: ``It’s what he’s got to do if he wants to be a good NBA player. Everybody has things that they have to do and that’s one of the things he has to do.’’

Whereas in the past Gordon might have tried to will the team out of this three-game losing streak on his own by forcing contested shots, overdribbling or going for the home-run type of plays where a simplistic move might have sufficed, he knows that the Magic need him to straddle the line of aggression and control. He is a willing soldier and eager to do what can best help the struggling Magic get back on track – starting on Thursday against the Bulls.

``I’m just trying to stay within the team. That’s what Cliff has been preaching to me – stay within the team and stay within the system,’’ Gordon said. ``That will give us what we need to win and give me a consistent level of playing. That’s what I’m doing, staying within the system, but it’s also important that I bring that energy for the team. I’ve got to get those easy ones to get going and I’ve got to get to the foul line more.’’

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