By John Denton
Oct. 28, 2017
CHARLOTTE – Without question, the Orlando Magic have already accomplished some heady stuff what with them impressively routing Cleveland and San Antonio and notching a slew of franchise records through five games.
However, several long-time players on the Magic have completely resisted the urge to savor the success because of a nagging memory from the past that still haunts them to this day.
Just two seasons ago, when Scott Skiles was Orlando’s head coach, Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier were franchise fixtures and Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton were young players on the rise, the Magic opened the 2015-16 season 19-13 and were seemingly poised to finally turn the corner on rebuilding.
Then, January of 2016 hit and Orlando inexplicably fell apart with 12 losses in a 14-game stretch to undo all of the progress that the team had made during the strong start.
The Magic wouldn’t recover from that January swoon and, in many ways, neither did Vucevic, who is still admittedly scarred by that collapse. Anytime now that the 7-foot center allows himself to think this season’s Magic team has arrived after its strong start, Vucevic reminds himself of what happened two seasons ago.
“That year can show how quickly things can turn. We started off great, playing good basketball and then we hit a stretch where we lost (eight) in a row and we could never recover from it,’’ said Vucevic, whose Magic (4-1) face the Hornets (2-3) in Charlotte on Sunday at 6 p.m. “That (struggle two years ago) should show us that you can’t take any nights off in the NBA. You are going to run into some bad stretches – that’s just part of the season – but while we’re playing well and feeling good, we have to take advantage and get as many wins as we can.
So, this is a good start for us, but we have to keep building and never be satisfied,’’ Vucevic added.
Orlando, the Eastern Conference’s top team following play on Friday, has plenty of reasons to be cautiously optimistic these days. The Magic are 3-0 at the Amway Center after beating Miami in the opener and toppling Brooklyn and San Antonio this past week. They didn’t just beat the perennially powerful and previously undefeated Spurs; they led by as much as 36 points in the third quarter, rested the starters in the fourth and coasted home for a 114-87 victory.
That win came less than a week after Orlando went into Cleveland and snapped a 17-game losing streak to LeBron James and the Cavaliers by building a lead as large as 37 points in a 21-point victory.
“People aren’t going to take us lightly and if they do, we’re going to blow them out,’’ boasted Gordon, who is averaging 23.7 points and 9.7 rebounds on 59.5 percent shooting and 72.7 percent accuracy from 3-point range in his three games played. “This is just a good group with a good vibe and good energy. Everybody is playing together so well and it looks like we’re having fun, huh?’’
Orlando will take all of that feel-good momentum into Charlotte where the Hornets still feature long-time Magic tormenter, Kemba Walker, and it added former all-star center Dwight Howard in the offseason. Charlotte beat the Magic in all four meetings last season and it is riding a seven-game winning streak against its Southeast Division rivals.
However, the Hornets – losers on Friday night to the high-powered Houston Rockets – could see a dramatically different Magic team this time around, considering how Orlando has altered its attack on both ends of the floor. The Magic rank first in the NBA in 3-point shooting (45.9 percent), second in scoring (118 ppg.) and second in total field goal percentage (49.8 percent), second in percentage of field goals off assists (56.9 percent) and third in overall assists (24.4 apg.). The Magic have scored at least 114 points in each of their five games – the longest such streak to start a season since the Detroit Pistons did it for the first eight games of the 1985-86 season.
Those are numbers that make Magic head coach Frank Vogel smile, especially the ones involving the team’s sharing of the basketball.
“We’re doing some really good things and you have to be positively encouraged with the way that we’re playing,’’ said Vogel, who made ball movement a point of emphasis all preseason. “I’m just impressed with how we’re playing offensively in terms of sharing the basketball. It’s a really high level and nobody is forcing it at the rim and nobody is forcing it on the perimeter. As a result, we’re just getting each other better and better looks and that’s why it is clicking.’’
The Magic have been so good thus far – their average margin of victory (10.8 points per game) is third in the NBA – that there is a strong belief beginning to build inside the Magic locker room. Bismack Biyombo, who suffered through Orlando’s dismal 29-53 season last year, said the team has learned a formula with which it can be successful. Whether anyone wants to believe in the Magic’s legitimacy yet or not is up for debate, but the results should speak loudly, Biyombo said.
“People can keep saying they were just missing shots, but just like I said (after games against Cleveland and San Antonio), we’re playing really, really good defense,’’ Biyombo said with conviction. “I think that as we continue to beat all of these big teams, who knows what will happen. We can’t get ahead of ourselves and we can’t get too high when we win or too low when we lose. We’ve just got to keep the same pace and see what’s coming. But I’m really excited for everybody here. The way we’re playing and covering for each other, it’s special.’’
Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic, wants to believe as well that what Orlando has going is indeed special. But, again, he is reminded of what transpired two seasons ago after the Magic had played 32 games. Undoubtedly, he is encouraged with how the Magic “playing the right way’’ and are sharing the ball – a culprit of past failures – but Vucevic is taking a cautious approach because he wants the team to prove its legitimacy over the long haul.
“It’s early to get too excited because it’s only five games in and things can change so quickly in the NBA – as we have seen before,’’ said Vucevic, who is averaging 22 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists in five games. “We have to understand that this is a good start, but we have to improve and build on it. But, sure, if we keep playing this way, playing the right way and playing hard on both ends, we’ll give ourselves a chance each game.’’
As for Fournier, who had an efficient 25 points on Friday and is averaging 22.2 a game thus far, he recently recoiled physically when it was mentioned that the Magic might be on their way toward a much-improved season. Check back with him later in the season and then Fournier will be impressed, he said. He, too, remembers the disappointment from two seasons ago and doesn’t want Orlando getting comfortable.
“Nahhh, man, I don’t want to hear about that yet,’’ Fournier said with a playful laugh. “I’ve been here for four years and with Scott (Skiles) we had an amazing December and then we were the worst team in the NBA in January. So I don’t want to hear any of that (arrival talk) right now. It’s early and we still have a long way to go, so please no (dreaming about the future) until we’ve done something.’’
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