By John Denton
Nov. 2, 2017
ORLANDO – While the Orlando Magic have undoubtedly used shooting improvements from Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic and better playmaking from Evan Fournier to key a surprising 6-2 start, their biggest gains of all could very well be from a vastly superior group of reserves.
Whereas the Magic often suffered tremendous drop-offs last season when starters such as Fournier, Vucevic and Gordon exited games, this season they have gotten exactly the opposite sort of results. Orlando need to look no further than the previous two games – thrilling come-from-behind wins in New Orleans and Memphis – to know the benefits of having a host of reliable veterans along the second unit.
On Monday, Orlando surged back in New Orleans and whipped the Pelicans 115-99 when veteran reserve Marreese Speights scored 12 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter. And on Wednesday, when the Magic were without their two top point guards, newcomer Shelvin Mack played his best game of the season with nine points and eight assists in a 101-99 defeat of Memphis.
Wednesday’s game was actually one of the bench’s least-productive games thus far, but in the end the Magic wouldn’t have equaled their best start since the 2009-10 season without Mack’s steadiness, nine points and five rebounds from Jonathon Simmons, seven points and three blocks from blossoming rookie Jonathan Isaac, six more points from Speights and a basket by Arron Afflalo. Frank Vogel, who in the offseason pushed for major upgrades to Orlando’s second unit, said as much after the Magic’s first win in Memphis in nearly a decade.
“No way, we would not have (won without the reserves),’’ Vogel said with conviction. “This is the ultimate gotta-stay-ready type of thing. … There were a lot of situations out there (on Wednesday) where last year we wouldn’t have won this game. But our guys are just competing, believing in what we’re doing and it’s a fun thing to be a part of. So far, so good.’’
Orlando’s depth could be tested even further starting Friday when it hosts the rebuilding Chicago Bulls (tipoff: 7 p.m.; TV: Fox Sports Florida).
Elfrid Payton has missed the previous six games with a strained left hamstring and his replacement, D.J. Augustin, went down with the same injury on Wednesday in Memphis. If neither can play, that means Mack – a veteran signed in the offseason who has experience as both a starter and a reserve – will be asked to handle most of the ball-handling and playmaking duties. Simmons and Fournier can also handle the ball and initiate the offense, while Gordon joked that he even mentioned to Vogel that he can play point guard. Not necessary, Mack said.
“I think it’s enough (with him and Simmons at point guard),’’ said Mack, who made three of four shots and hit a 3-pointer on Wednesday. “We were able to get it done (on Wednesday), and with the way we play, a lot of people bring the ball up in different situations. We have a lot of unselfish guys. We’re basketball players and we can figure it out.’’
The Magic are figuring that Payton – the starter at point guard much of the past three seasons – will be able to return on Friday. Payton, who strained his hamstring midway through the second game of the season on Oct. 20, has ramped up the intensity of his workouts Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. He is scheduled to get in more work on Thursday and at the team’s Friday morning practice and if he’s not in danger or re-injuring the leg he could be cleared to face the Bulls.
“He’s making progress and he’s going to get in there (on the Magic’s practice court on Thursday) and we’ll see how he feels,’’ Vogel said. “We’ll see how he feels on Friday after (Thursday’s) work.’’
Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond greatly enhanced the team’s roster in the offseason by adding proven talent to the second string. Simmons, who was signed away from the San Antonio Spurs, has been a steal thus far with two 20-point games and seven double-digit efforts. In 133 NBA games with the Spurs, Simmons had just one 20-point game and seven double-digit scoring nights. Defensively, he is Orlando’s version of a Swiss Army knife what with his ability to guard three positions.
Then, other offseason additions such as Mack, Speights, Afflalo and Isaac – the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft – have fortified a reserve unit that so often struggled last season. Add in the defensive toughness and improved play around the rim of veteran center Bismack Biyombo and the Magic have a deep and diverse team.
With the Magic out of the playoffs each of the past five seasons, some have wondered if their strong start is merely a mirage that will disappear as the long season wears on. Not likely, said Memphis coach David Fizdale, who was extremely complimentary of Orlando’s firepower and depth prior to Wednesday’s game.
“I don’t see why not,’’ Fizdale said when asked if Orlando could keep its league-leading pace up over the entirety of the season. “They’ve got a good team and good players. They’ve got proven shooters and versatility in their bigs. Vucevic is stepping out (to the 3-point line) like Marc (Gasol), (Marreese) Speights steps out to the three, (Bismack) Biyombo is a big-time rim-protector and rim-roller. So they have a lot of diversity there with their big men and a ton of skill on the perimeter with (Terrence) Ross and (Evan) Fournier and (Jonathon) Simmons is an animal who brings winning ways with him.
“So, you see that they’ve put together a nice squad and I really think everyone is getting to see the whole picture of Frank Vogel as a coach,’’ Fizdale added. “It goes to show you that a coach isn’t just one (style of play). Those Indiana teams that (Vogel) coached (prior to coming to Orlando) were slow, physical, they beat you up and they were one of the top four-or-five teams in the league. Now, he’s got a totally different team, he’s adjusted great and that’s a credit to him.’’
Vogel is confident that with vast improvements from starters such as Gordon, Fournier and Vucevic and a heavily socked bench that the Magic can continue to get better as the season goes along. The veteran coach said he doesn’t buy into the talk of the Magic maintaining their current success. He wants the team to not be content and keep pushing for more improvement.
“On the offensive end, we’re still having too many one-pass possessions, no-pass possessions, still too many forces at the rim, still not crashing enough and not taking care of the basketball enough,’’ said Vogel while pushing his team to want more. “I think there is still a lot of room for improvement on that (offensive) end. No, we’re not going to shoot that well every night and we’re going to play tough defensive groups and there will be games where we’re undermanned because of injury, but there are still things that we can improve upon.
“That’s what I’m challenging our guys with – not can we sustain it, but can we keep improving with every game that we’re playing,’’ the coach added.
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