Seeking Fourth Straight Win, Magic Hope to Stay Sharp on Offense

by John Denton

CLEVELAND – After the Orlando Magic scored 127 and 128 points in their previous two games – only the third time in the 31-history of the franchise that it topped 125 points in consecutive games – what will they do tonight in Cleveland for an encore?

Recent history suggests that the Magic will continue to pile up the points and look nothing like the squad that struggled to score early in the season.

Despite still being without all-star center Nikola Vucevic, the Magic have made major strides offensively by becoming more diverse, moving the ball better with more freedom and, at long last, shooting it with confidence.

The Magic (10-11) head into tonight’s game in Cleveland against the Cavaliers (5-15) are averaging 106.9 points over their past seven games – up almost seven points over where it sat 10 games into the season. During that same seven-game stretch, Orlando is shooting a solid 45.8 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from 3-point range. In the past two defeats over Washington and Phoenix, point guard Markelle Fultz (20 points) and Aaron Gordon (32 points) set new season highs for scoring.

``It’s been great, and it’s been something that we’ve been looking forward to doing since the beginning of the season,’’ Fultz said of his team vastly improved offense of late. ``Now that we’re shooting it better, we’ve got to put it together offensively and defensively and have a great game on both ends.’’

Included in Orlando’s recent run of success was a 116-104 defeat of Cleveland back on Nov. 27, a game in which the Magic shot 48.4 percent from the floor and drilled 12 3-pointers. The Magic also forced the Cavaliers into 25 turnovers – mistakes that helped to fuel the Magic’s offense on another high-scoring night.

Tonight, the Magic look to do the same against a rebuilding Cleveland team that has lost four in a row and nine of its last 10 games. Orlando also has a chance to pull within .500 for the first time since it was 2-2 back on Oct. 30. Largely because of their offensive struggles early in the season, the Magic fell as low as four games below .500 before their recent rally.

While Magic head coach Steve Clifford is happy that his team is playing better offensively, he said that he is very concerned with his team’s slippage defensively. Clifford feels that its incumbent on the Magic to be a top-five defensive team this season if it wants to not only make the playoffs but do damage once there. Clifford doesn’t want his team to be seduced by the high number of points that it has been scoring of late and lose track of its true identity as a defensively dominant squad.

``I showed the guys the numbers today and we’ve struggled defensively in this stretch (of games) and we’ve got to get back (to previous levels),’’ Clifford said. ``(The Cavaliers) are a tough team to play against because the things that we haven’t been good at, they’re good at. We’ve got to get our defense set, and with our individual defense and our pick-and-roll defense, we’re going to have to be a lot better.’’

One thing that should help the Magic’s defense is the expected return of 6-foot-6 guard Michael Carter-Williams, who could wear a protective mask in tonight’s game to protect his bruised and swollen nose. After missing six games with a left hip injury, Carter-Williams returned to action on Monday in Washington – a 127-120 victory for the Magic. However, after knocking the ball away from Wizards’ star Bradley Beal, Carter-Williams was whacked across the face by the back of Beal’s hand.

Carter-Williams’ nose was bloodied and badly bruised and that hit knocked him out of Orlando’s 128-114 defeat of Phoenix on Wednesday. But he hopes to play tonight and to help improve the Magic’s defense with his rangy length and basketball smarts in pick-and-roll plays.

``My nose hurts, but I’m getting through and our (medical) guys are doing a great job of giving me treatment and I’m looking forward to playing tonight,’’ said Carter-Williams, who had five points and five rebounds in Monday’s victory. ``We’re playing excellent offensively, but we’ve slipped on defense a little bit. We’re not as sharp and we’ve got to get back to the basics of keeping teams off balance and forcing turnovers. We have to do the things that Coach (Clifford) always asks us to do.’’

Clifford is asking for the Magic to play the kind of defense that made them a top-five unit in nearly every major statistical category in the first month of the season. Improving the defense, Clifford stressed, would be more meaningful that simply reaching .500 tonight with a win.

``For sure, it’s a starting point,’’ Clifford said of his team potentially reaching .500 tonight. ``But what I want us to do is I want us to play better. I told the guys this morning, `We’ve competed hard in this stretch and we’ve had some solid wins, but we’re not playing even close to a manner that’s going to sustain good play.’ We’re just not. We’re turning the ball over and our defense is not even close to where it needs to be.

``(Shooting) is why we’re winning,’’ he added. ``We’ve lost some games (early in the season) where we played really well because we didn’t shoot the ball well. Now, we’ve won two games in a row … we shot our way into wins, but we didn’t play that well. So, our defense has to be better.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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