By John Denton
April 5, 2017
ORLANDO – The combination of lofty expectations and nightly struggles because of an awkwardly aligned roster often left Orlando Magic coach Frank Vogel batty early in the season.
However, calmness and confidence have washed over the sometimes-fiery head coach since the Magic changed their style of play and changed their outlook on playing for and with one another.
It might not always be evident as the losses continue to mount for the rebuilding Magic, but the franchise finally has a sense of purpose and is headed in the right direction, Vogel vowed late Tuesday night.
“You know, I think the first half of the season was tougher than right now,’’ Vogel said, referring to Orlando’s 21-37 start to the season that all but ended any hopes of it reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2012. “Right now, I love the competitive spirit and there’s a purity to the way this group is playing that I’m pleased with. If you’re getting that kind of pure effort on a nightly basis, you live with the results. As long as your guys are improving and going in the right direction – which I believe we are – you can live with the results.’’
The results of late have been both pleasing and maddening for the Magic (27-51), which host the suddenly surging Brooklyn Nets (19-59) on Thursday at the Amway Center. While Orlando has managed to defeat the likes of Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Detroit since the NBA all-star break, it has also crumbled in disappointing second halves against Portland, New York, Sacramento, Charlotte, Oklahoma City, Boston and Cleveland. The Magic led late against the Celtics, but couldn’t hold on and they had a two-point edge at halftime on the Cavaliers before being crushed under an avalanche of assists and 3-point shots set up by LeBron James in Tuesday’s 122-102 defeat.
On the surface, the cynic sees only the five-game losing streak – the longest skid of the season. Vogel, however, sees the fight and the late leads against OKC, Boston and Cleveland – all playoff-bound powerhouses with MVP-caliber talents – and again he’s encouraged.
“We’re going in the right direction, there’s no doubt about it,’’ said the perpetually positive Vogel. “We’re playing Boston to a final possession, we had a lead at Cleveland when they had to have it and our guys are going in the right direction. Obviously, we’re not there yet, but I’m pleased with the direction.’’
That wasn’t always the case for Vogel, who tried making things work when the Magic opened the season with Serge Ibaka at power forward and Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier playing out of position at small forward and shooting guard, respectively. That configuration often made the Magic slow and ineffective against the many small-ball, 3-point-heavy lineups sweeping the NBA. Sadly, the results were often predictably ugly.
Dealing Ibaka to Toronto for shooting guard Terrence Ross on Feb. 14 gave the Magic a better chance of defending on the perimeter and matching foes in the 3-point shooting department, Vogel has said time and again. Ross, who has averaged 13 points over 20 games since arriving in Orlando despite shooting just 42.6 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from 3-point range, feels the Magic are building a standard for how they want to play nightly.
“The more we get used to playing the way we are now with small-ball, the better we will get,’’ Ross promised. “We kind of had to pick this (style of play) up halfway through the year and had to run with it. Next year, when we have a chance to really focus on the little things and clean up the mistakes, we’ll be a lot better.’’
Gordon, the player who has arguably benefitted the most from the change in the style of play, has said it’s important that the Magic continue to play hard down the stretch in hopes of building some momentum for the offseason. Since moving back to the power forward slot, Gordon has averaged 15.9 points and 6.1 rebounds a night while upping his shooting percentage to a far-more-efficient 49.6 percent from the floor.
“We just need to continue to play hard and try to establish an identity for ourselves and set a standard of basketball for ourselves,’’ said Gordon, the lone bright spot in last Saturday’s loss in Brooklyn with his 32 points and 16 rebounds. “We’re not focused on the opposition; we’re focused on our core and our values and on playing a style of basketball that we can rely on every night.’’
Vogel knows now that he can rely on his Magic playing hard most every night – Saturday’s humbling 121-111 loss in Brooklyn withstanding. He has stressed to his team that even though it is out of the playoff chase that there is great importance to the games being played down the stretch. Evaluations are being made, Vogel said, and he wants to go into the summer feeling good about the team that the Magic can eventually become next season.
“This is an important time for our franchise,’’ Vogel stressed. “There’s a lot of development that needs to take place and our young guys have to improve and develop habits that will lead to winning basketball and (becoming) a playoff caliber team.
“There’s an evaluation involved in both the style of play that we’re using, the schemes, the offensive system and the personnel that we’re using to try to get the job done,’’ the coach continued. “So the intent that we’re playing with in trying to win these games and play at the highest level possible means a lot when we come to the summer and evaluate everything.’’
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