By John Denton Nov. 10, 2017
PHOENIX – As the saying goes, a journey begins with a single step. The Orlando Magic know full well that beating the rebuilding Phoenix Suns tonight would be a solid first step on this arduous journey throughout the NBA’s Western Conference.
The Magic (7-4) left Central Florida on Thursday for a four-game, eight-day road trip that will see them face the Suns (tonight), Denver Nuggets (Saturday), Golden State Warriors (Monday) and Portland Trail Blazers (Wednesday). But they leave with this promising tidbit: Thus far, Orlando has made the NBA’s biggest jump in win percentage (+.282%), going from .354 percent last season (29-53) to 7-4 (.636%), per Stats Inc. Detroit (+.276%), Minnesota (+.258%), Philadelphia (+.204%) and Boston (+.187%) round out the top five of the most improved teams so far.
``Time will tell (if the success will continue), but that’s the hope,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said Friday morning in Phoenix. ``I really feel like we’ve planted some seeds for the way this team needs to play.’’
Tonight’s game (tipoff: 9 p.m. ET; TV: Fox Sports Florida) is actually the start of a daunting stretch of the schedule where Orlando will play eight of the next 10 games outside of Orlando and spend 15 of the next 20 days on the road. What better way for the Magic to start off their trip than to win in Phoenix, a place where it has won four of the past six years?
``It’s a critical stretch and it will show us what we’re made of after the way we’ve started the season,’’ Magic center Nikola Vucevic said. ``It can really show how strong we are together if we hit adversity. Road trips can be great for teams if you can win a few games and build some confidence. We’re playing some good teams and there aren’t any bad teams out there on the West Coast, so it will be a good test of our character.
``It’s not easy playing on the road, but I feel like this team likes playing on the road,’’ the 7-foot center added. ``I, personally, do like playing in front of the away crowds and being able to respond if things don’t go our way.’’
Things went the Magic’s way on Wednesday as they got point guard Elfrid Payton back in the starting lineup and they dodged having to face star forward Kristaps Porzingis. That combination helped the Magic whip the New York Knicks 112-99 at the Amway Center – a performance fueled by Payton’s points (11), pace (11 assists) and persistence (six rebounds and two steals).
Payton played 29 minutes on Wednesday, showing no ill effects of the strained left hamstring that kept him on the shelf for 2½ weeks.
Payton surprised himself a bit with his lack of rustiness and his strong stamina level and he is hopeful that his hamstring will continue to strengthen the more he plays. Vogel said Payton is still dealing with a lot of soreness in his hamstring, but the coach added that the point guard ``will give it a go tonight.’’
Said Payton of his play on Wednesday: ``No rustiness or real fatigue – not really. Kinda right before the game we decided I was going to (play), but I didn’t know there would be no minutes’ restriction. So much for that. … (The hamstring is) still pretty tight, but definitely better than before. But I’m out there, so that’s all that matters.’’
Payton’s return mattered a great deal to the Magic as they were able to turn 24 New York turnovers into 29 points. Also, with Payton pushing the pace on Wednesday, Orlando ran its way to 21 fast break points to snap a brief, two-game losing streak.
Phoenix, a team in turmoil much of the season, enters this game with a four-game losing streak. The Suns lost their first three games by a combined 92 points, prompting the firing of head coach Earl Watson. Not long after, point guard Eric Bledsoe hinted at wanting a trade – a wish that was granted this week when he was dealt to the Milwaukee Bucks for center Greg Monroe.
Phoenix steadied itself with wins against Sacramento, Utah, Brooklyn and Washington behind strong play from guard Devin Booker (22.3 points per game). Once in possession of standout guards Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Bledsoe two seasons ago, the Suns are now trying to get by with Mike James at lead guard and it shows. The Suns are 29th in the NBA in the percentage of baskets that come off assists (48 percent), while the Magic rank fourth in the NBA in that same category (54.3 percent).
Speaking of passing, the Magic hope to pass their first test of this trip with a defeat of the struggling Suns. A victory tonight could very well set the tone for a trip sure to test Orlando, shooting guard Terrence Ross said.
``This trip is going to be a good test for us, but that’s part of growing,’’ said Ross, who showed signs on Wednesday of breaking out of his season-long shooting slump with two 3-pointers. ``We’ve got to meet challenges like this head of, all be on the same page and push through adversity that occurs. A season is really about how you play through adversity, so this will be a great test for us.’’
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