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NBA -- The Magic struggle in the middle


PhilBoxing.com




ORLANDO -- The first quarter of the 2018-19 NBA season has not exactly been what everyone expected. Prior to the start of the season, the most legitimate contenders to make it to the conference finals were the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets in the West and the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors in the East.

As it stands, the Denver Nuggets hold the top spot in the West and the Warriors are in third. And while the Raptors are tops in the East, the Celtics have struggled early and are in fifth place. Though there is still a long road to go in the season, no one would have expected the Rockets to be sitting in 14th place in the West with a 11-13 record.

There are a few other surprises too, like the rise of the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio’s drop in the standings. These extremes in expectation versus reality are what usually captures our attention. But what about the teams in the middle? The teams who flirt daily with the line that separates those who are in from those who are out. One might argue that it’s too early to think about the Playoffs. But for those teams in the middle, early season wins and losses count just as much as those that come in the spring.

The Orlando Magic is one of those teams. After finishing the 2017-18 season with a 25-57 record near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, the Magic are among the East teams who could have a shot at the Playoffs come April.

Orlando has also been the home of the Magic since 1989. In that time, the relatively young franchise fielded two Eastern Conference Champions in 1995 and 2009. Those teams featured a Hall of Famer (Shaquille O’Neal from 1992 to 1996) and an All Star (Dwight Howard from 2004 to 2012), two classic big men who brought their share of thrills and excitement to the Magic’s kingdom. Despite dabbling with success in the past, the Magic have not made the playoffs since the 2011-12 season, when they lost to the Indiana Pacers in the first round. In the last few seasons, they have had a carousel of coaches and the current season is the first at the helm for Steve Clifford.

Entering their contest against the Indiana Pacers at home on Friday night (Saturday morning Manila time), the Magic were 12-13, good for seventh place in the Eastern Conference. Though they sit just below .500, Orlando rebounded from an even more dismal start to the season, losing 5 of their first 7 games. They went 9-7 in November when they instead could have quickly disappeared into the abyss of the Draft Lottery, a place to where a handful of Eastern Conference teams have already begun their descent.

They are a young team, anchored by veteran center Nikola Vucevic and guard Evan Fournier. Vucevic leads the team in points (21.0 PPG) and rebounds (11.4 RPG) and was a major force for the team during its November run. He was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the week ending Nov. 18, during which he averaged 27.8 PPG and 10.5 RPG while shooting 58.1% from the field and 47.1% from three-point range. Forward Aaron Gordon, who is widely remembered for his scintillating performance in the 2016 All Star dunk contest, re-signed with the Magic over the summer and looks to be an integral part of the young core of this team moving forward.

For a team like Orlando, who has not met much success in the past few seasons, what are the expectations? Coach Clifford, has made this assessment of his team, explaining, “We have a way to play. Some teams don’t. We have a way to play…. And when we play that way, we’re very good…. When you have a way to play, you have to know it, every guy has got to accept their role, embrace their role, and play that way every night. Whether they make their first three or miss their three, whether you’re up 10 or down 10. That’s what the best teams in this league do.”

Coming off a six game Western road trip in which they were 3-3, the Magic lost a tough overtime match up against the Nuggets in their last game. The match up against the Pacers would be an early test of their resilience. How would they respond?

Against the Pacers on Friday night, the Magic only shot 40.9% from the field and 24.2% from behind the arc. They committed 17 turnovers, which resulted in 20 points for the Pacers. After trailing 57-45 at the half, the Magic went on a run to bring the game within 4 points. But the Pacers regained their footing and eventually routed the Magic 112-90.

Postgame, Coach Clifford offered this assessment, “Against Denver, we made a bunch of shots. The offense was good enough and the defense just wasn’t there. And tonight we had neither…. Let’s face it, tonight, I mean it was just Denver all over again, all over again. I mean never into the ball, never ball pressure, late with talk. It’s the difference in this league between okay and good, good-very good, very good and great. You’ve got to play every night. Like a team like us, we’re good enough to beat anybody, we can’t have many more of these nights, because we’re not just going to show up and beat people. We have to put a lot into it to win and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there has to be a purpose and a commitment to the way we’re playing and an understanding of when we’re good, why we’re not good, and a willingness to do the things that are necessary so we can play well. That’s it. It’s as simple as that.”

Clifford’s call for consistency is not only one for his team but for all the teams trying to pull themselves out of their Conference cellar. Whether his team meets the challenge, we will have to stay tuned. If they do, we may see the return of Playoff magic in Orlando.

Photo: Nikola Vucevic is the latest of a long line of big men to don the Orlando Magic uniform, following the giant footsteps of Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard.


Click here to view a list of other articles written by Adeline Deladisma.


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