By John Denton
Nov. 9, 2017
PHOENIX – Anyone who has seen this Orlando Magic team and has seen it carve up Cleveland and San Antonio, gut out wins in Memphis and New Orleans and battle through a first bit of injury adversity knows that it is dramatically different than its predecessors in recent years.
Now, with the Magic sitting at an impressive 7-4 and heading into their most difficult stretch of the season, here are few other drastically different facets of this team: It welcomes the challenge of the road, it craves the silence inside opposing arenas and it’s eager to test itself against the best from the West.
Aaron Gordon, something of a poster boy for all of the individual and team-wide improvement made by the Magic, offered this up about the challenge ahead of playing eight of the next 10 games on the road – starting with Friday night’s game in Phoenix.
“We like playing on the road because it’s just us out there,’’ a brazen Gordon said stone-faced without a blink. “We have to come together as a team, it’s on us and we have to make our own energy. And it’s fun silencing crowds.’’
Orlando has gotten to hear the sweet silence of shushed home crowds already in Cleveland, New Orleans and Memphis and it will have the opportunity to pull off that feat plenty more times in the days and weeks ahead. The Magic left Central Florida on Thursday for a West Coast swing that will see them play in Phoenix (Friday), Denver (Saturday), Oakland (versus Golden State on Monday) and Portland (Wednesday). Then, after five nights and two games at home, the Magic head back out for another arduous four-game, seven-night trip that will have them on the road throughout the Thanksgiving holiday.
In all, eight of the next 10 games will be played outside of Orlando and 15 of 20 nights will be spent on the road. The Magic and head coach Frank Vogel know that it’s the kind of stretch that could go a long way in defining a season and determining the true makeup of this team. Vogel believes strongly that there’s a distinct toughness to this team and now the Magic have plenty of chances to prove it while playing in front of hostile crowds.
“It’s maybe the toughest stretch of our season,’’ Vogel said Wednesday after the Magic’s 112-99 whipping of the New York Knicks. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us, but hopefully with (point guard) Elfrid (Payton) coming back and us getting whole that will help us and put us at our best. We’re trying to play .500 basketball on the road and we’re plus-one right now (3-2). When we come off this trip hopefully we’ll be plus-five.’’
Unlike in years past, when the Magic were mostly road kill when they ventured out on difficult stretches, they now can think about stringing together away successes because of a swagger and toughness the squad has developed. There is a comfort born from having the same coach and starting five from the previous season, a burgeoning belief because of their free-wheeling, share-the-ball style of play and a confidence from the rampant improvements across the roster.
Gordon, who is now hitting catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and has boosted his scoring average to 19.3 points per game, is an early candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic have each added new facets – better playmaking for the former and a difference-making 3-point shot for the latter – to their already-efficient games. And the second unit, one that was often the culprit in losses last season, has been bolstered by the toughness of Jonathon Simmons, the youthful exuberance and athleticism of Jonathan Isaac and timely contributions from veterans D.J. Augustin, Marreese Speights, Shelvin Mack and Arron Afflalo.
The cog that makes it all go – as the Magic found out in a recent two-game skid – is Payton, the point guard with the unruly hair and the dependable results. Payton missed eight straight games with a strained hamstring and when his replacement, Augustin, missed two overlapping games with a similar injury, Orlando’s offense ground to a halt in ugly losses to Chicago and Boston. But with Payton finally healthy after a 2½ week absence, he returned Wednesday to push the Magic to 29 points off turnovers and 21 fast break points with his 11 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and two steals.
Payton’s pace and push give the Magic a strong belief that they have what it takes to do battle with any foe, home or away, Vucevic and Fournier stressed.
“The pace that he plays at, it leads us and makes us follow him,’’ Vucevic said of his point guard following his own 24-point, four-steal performance on Wednesday. “And with him knowing everybody, especially that first unit who has been with him the last couple of years, that chemistry is big. You can only build that through years and with playing together for a long time. You can just tell that we’re all more comfortable with him out there.’’
Added Fournier, who had another 23 points on Wednesday and is the team leader at 20.5 points per game: “Finally, man, having E.P. is huge for us. The biggest thing with E.P. is the pace because he’s just incredible at getting the ball ahead and into the paint and making decisions. When your point guard is running like he does you as a wing player has to run with him. He just makes everything better for us offensively. … We don’t have D.J. (Augustin), so we’re not complete yet, but it definitely feels better with E.P. back. We only had one point guard for two games and we lost those by 20 points. That’s not a coincidence. So, it feels really good having him back.’’
Payton has long sensed that there is something different about this team – both from when he was watching from the sideline while injured and when he was a part of the two victories he finished. He likes how there’s a maturity to this team and a collective hunger to strive for more. Those are traits that travel in the NBA and allow teams to win and silence crowds of 20,000 fans in hostile venues.
“There’s no better feeling than going into somebody else’s arena, getting the win and shutting up the crowd. I think guys on this team like that challenge,’’ Payton said. “This (stretch of the schedule) is very critical, but I think it’s a chance for us to prove ourselves and what kind of team we’re going to be. I think guys are up for this challenge and trying to prove that what we did early in the season wasn’t a fluke and we can play.’’
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