By John Denton
Oct. 18, 2017
ORLANDO – An Orlando Magic team looking for major defensive improvements this season will get an enormous test right from the start when they face hard-driving point guard Goran Dragic and the rival Miami Heat.
Orlando sees defensive improvement as the one area that could very well control its fate as a contender this season, especially after it lagged into the NBA’s bottom-five in several key defensive statistical categories last season. The Magic made it their top priority in the preseason to improve their ball containment, rim contests and defensive fight and they responded with some drastically improved efforts in their six exhibition games.
Enter now for tonight’s regular-season-opener the rival Heat, a team that gashed the Magic for a whopping 74 points in the paint in last October’s opener – which was also at the Amway Center. Miami won that game 108-96 thanks to 18 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots from center Hassan Whiteside and five other Miami players who scored in double figures – with most of those points coming off straight-line drives right to the rim.
The leader of that Heat group, of course, is Dragic, who is coming off a stellar summer in which he was the Eurobasket MVP after leading Slovenia to a title. In four games against the Magic last season, Dragic averaged 18 points and 4.25 assists. Many of those assists went to Whiteside (19.3 ppg., 16.5 rpg., 3.0 rpg. and 60 percent FG in four games vs. Orlando) after he broke down the Magic defense with fearless drives into the paint.
Magic coach Frank Vogel knows his team’s chances to win – both tonight against Miami and for most of this season – will come down to defense. Against Miami, that means cutting off those drives to the rim that break down defenses. Tipoff is just after 7 p.m.
“We’ve got to contain the basketball and we know that. But it’s easier said than done and we know that too,’’ Vogel said. “It’s just going to take a lot of hard work and we’ve got to be ready for them.’’
Despite being out of the playoffs for the past five seasons, Orlando has high hopes because of the maturation of its talent base, the continuity gained from having Vogel and much of the core of the team returning and the implementation of an up-tempo style that seems to best fit the personnel.
Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton finished last year on high notes and carried that momentum over into the exhibition season when they looked poised for breakout years ahead. Franchise fixtures Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic are still around to provide leadership on and off the floor. Also, the Magic greatly improved their bench – often a culprit of lopsided losses last season – by adding veteran free agents Jonathon Simmons, Arron Afflalo, Marreese Speights and Shelvin Mack and drafting promising forward Jonathan Isaac.
“I feel that we are a better team than we were last year and we’re even better than the team that we started with in training camp,’’ said Gordon, who will start the season at his natural position of power forward after struggling in the past while playing predominantly on the wing. “We’re going to put our players on the floor and we’re going to get after it every night.’’
Orlando’s season series against Miami didn’t seem to make much sense last season. After getting shelled in the opener, the Magic rallied to win the final three meetings against the Heat. The truly odd part is the fact that Miami won the first game when it struggled mightily as a team (an 11-30 start) and lost three times when it was one of the NBA’s hottest teams (a 30-11 finish).
The Heat were the first team in NBA history to get to .500 after being as low as 19 games under the break-even mark at one point during the season.
“Miami is obviously a good team and they had a great season last year finishing 30-11,’’ Fournier said of the rival Heat. “They have short guards, but they are really, really aggressive and they have Whiteside in the paint. It’s a good test for us for the first game. And it’s always fun to play against Miami because the atmosphere is always fun. So I’m definitely looking forward to playing them.’’
Vucevic, the longest-tenured Magic player, is looking forward to seeing the kind of fight that his team brings to the game, especially on the defensive end of the floor. The 7-foot center knows that if the Magic are going to get into the playoffs for the first time during his run in Orlando it will have to be because the squad made major strides in terms of mental and physical toughness, 3-point shooting and, yes, defense.
“I’m excited because the season-opener is always a fun game, but we’re excited as players to get it started and show ourselves in this good test against the Heat,’’ said Vucevic, Orlando’s leading rebounder in each of his five seasons with the Magic. “This will give us a chance to see where we are. We’ve made some good strides, but we obviously still have some work to do. We want to start this season confident that we’ve improved and we’re going to do something good this year.’’
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