Jacksonville Sports Day

Denton: Magic Have Played Well Against NBA’s Elite Teams This Season

Photo Courtesy Orlando Magic

ORLANDO – Back on Nov. 2, the Orlando Magic sat precariously at 2-6, were in the throes of a four-game losing streak and had the unenviable task of having to face the always-rugged Spurs in San Antonio.

As has been the case most of the season, the Magic responded to the challenge against an elite team and played one of their most complete games in a 117-110 win in San Antonio. Ultimately, that feel-good victory jump-started a 7-2 stretch that helped Orlando climb above .500 for the first time since being 1-0.

Fast forward to the present and the Magic (14-19) find themselves in an eerily similar scenario. Following Wednesday’s frustration-filled overtime loss to the Phoenix Suns, the Magic have lost their last four games and dead ahead is another playoff powerhouse. At 26-10, the Toronto Raptors own the NBA’s best record.

That daunting confluence for the Magic isn’t necessarily a bad thing, veteran point guard D.J. Augustin insisted. After all, recent history suggests they will be ready for the Raptors.

“This year, we’ve played really, really well against the really good teams,’’ Augustin said, referring to Orlando’s defeats of Boston, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Utah and Los Angeles Lakers (twice) and narrow defeats against Golden State, Toronto, Denver and Philadelphia. “If only we could bring that same mindset against teams not as good, we’d be doing fine. It’s a long season and we’ll be fine. But (Friday) night, we’ll need to be ultra-focused against Toronto.’’

Coincidentally, the Raptors were the team that ended Orlando’s 7-2 run and a season-best three-game winning streak in the first meeting of the season at the Amway Center. That November night, the Magic looked every bit the equals of the mighty Raptors and superstar forward Kawhi Leonard, but they lost a 93-91 heartbreaker when guard Danny Green sank a short baseline jumper as time expired.

That first meeting transpired, however, when the Magic were at their best. Orlando has fallen on hard times of late, dropping the four games straight and seven of nine, because of alternating issues with their shooting and defense and poor beginnings by the starters and shoddy play by the reserves.

The Magic entered Wednesday last in the NBA in shooting over the previous seven games (39.3 percent), but they executed well and shot 50 percent with 14 3-pointers through four quarters. However, the shooting problems resurfaced in the overtime period when Orlando made just one of 10 attempts – missing its last nine tries – on the way to the 122-120 loss to Phoenix.

Terrence Ross, Orlando’s top reserve all season, seemed poised to break out of a mini-slump by making six of 10 shots and four of six 3-pointers in the game’s first four quarters. However, Ross’ zero-for-four shooting in the extra period left him upset with his play.

“Toss and turn (on Wednesday night) and flush it away today,’’ said Ross, who was fined $25,000 by the NBA League Office on Thursday for frustratingly flailing the ball the length of the court and into the Amway Center stands after the final horn sounded.

Ross’ up-and-down results were emblematic of the uneven play of his teammates coming off the bench on Wednesday. Ross (minus-21), Jerian Grant (minus-13), Jonathon Simmons (minus-11) and Mo Bamba (minus-3) struggled to hold first-, third- and fourth-quarter leads gained by the starting five.

When the Magic’s reserves struggled badly in a loss to Detroit on Nov. 7, Ross organized a pre-practice meeting with the group to hash out the issues. This time around, Ross said he will use the experience he’s gained from six-plus seasons in the NBA and try to lead by example.

“(Phoenix) was switching (defensively), but no excuses,’’ Ross said. “We talk a lot (among the reserves), but at this point we’ve just got to do it.’’

Being unable to depend on his backups, head coach Steve Clifford extended the minutes of the starters and he feels that likely played a major role in the Magic going cold offensively in the overtime period.

That poor OT ruined an otherwise brilliant night from Augustin, who scored 27 points, handed out six assists, swiped three steals and was a plus-13 on the scoreboard in his 41 minutes on the floor. Most importantly, Augustin stepped to the free throw line with six-tenths of a second remaining and calmly drilled three free throws to knot the game at 118 and force OT.

“It’s just about being confident and not doubting yourself because if you have any doubts or thoughts of missing, you are going to miss – I don’t care how good of a shooter you are,’’ said Augustin, who ranks 12thin the NBA in free throw accuracy at 88.6 percent. “My thought process was to just go up there and knock down all three of (the free throws) and that’s what I did.’’

A closer look at the Magic’s analytical data for the season shows just how important Augustin has been. The Magic’s offensive rating is 11.9 points per 100 possessions better when Augustin is one the floor (107.3) as opposed to when he’s off it (95.4). Defensively, the Magic are better when he’s on the floor (105.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) than when he’s off (107.1). His net rating (13.1 points per 100 possessions) ranks second on the team only to that of Nikola Vucevic (15.9).

Clifford thinks so highly of Augustin’s organizational skills and steadiness at the point that he’s started staggering his minutes to that he can play alongside of three reserves. The hope is that Augustin’s calming influence can bring some stability to the Magic’s bench corps. With Orlando already possessing a small margin for error, its bench ranks 30thin the NBA in plus/minus ratio for the season (minus-4.3). Augustin hopes to help improve that performance and help the Magic end another four-game losing streak – starting with Friday’s game against the vaunted Raptors.

“I’m just trying to organize guys, keep everybody on the right path, help them be in the right positions and get good shots,’’ Augustin said of his efforts to help the reserves. “So, that’s what I try to do when I’m out there with the second unit.

“When I’m not out there with Evan (Fournier), (Vucevic) and (Aaron Gordon), I have to be more aggressive and look to score or I’ll look for (Ross) coming off pindowns for shots,’’ Augustin added. “The game changes with who you are out there (on the floor) with, offensively and defensively.’’

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