Magic ea­ger to re­verse strug­gles

Orlando re­turns from hol­i­day break with back-to-back games.

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Roy Parry

To be a bet­ter team, the Orlando Magic know they will have to start beat­ing bet­ter teams.

They won’t have to wait long to chase that goal. Af­ter the Christ­mas hol­i­day pro­vided a small break in the sched­ule, the Magic will jump back into game ac­tion with a daunt­ing back-to­back set.

First, the Magic (13-17) take on the Philadelph­ia 76ers (23-10) at Amway Cen­ter on Fri­day, then head north to face the Mil­wau­kee Bucks (27-5) on Satur­day to close out their first home­and-road back-to-back set of the sea­son.

The Magic are 2-6 in back-to-back games this sea­son, with their most re­cent set com­ing last week dur­ing losses in Salt Lake City (109-102) and Den­ver (113-104).

Fri­day’s game tips off at 7 p.m., while Satur­day’s con­test gets un­der way at 8:30 p.m. Both games will air on Fox Sports Florida.

Fri­day’s game also will be broad­cast on NBA TV.

The Magic are com­ing off a 103-95 win against the Chicago Bulls on Mon­day that snapped a three-game los­ing streak. Orlando, which held Chicago to 41 sec­ond-half points, recorded a sea­son-high 13 blocked shots, in­clud­ing six in the fourth quar­ter, and 10 steals.

“I thought we took a big step in the right di­rec­tion the other night, par­tic­u­larly in the sec­ond half,” Magic coach Steve Clif­ford said. “These are the teams that we have to be able to beat. We’ve got to come in here with the right pur­pose, the right in­ten­sity, and if we do then, I mean, on a given night, we’re good enough to beat any­body.”

It may be a lit­tle early to talk about the play­offs — the

sea­son is barely two months old — but the Magic were eighth in the East­ern Con­fer­ence en­ter­ing Thurs­day night, 3.5 games be­hind the Brook­lyn Nets and 1.5 games ahead of the Char­lotte Hor­nets.

The Magic also find them­selves los­ing ground to the teams ahead of them in the stand­ings, and a big rea­son is they have strug­gled against bet­ter com­pe­ti­tion.

So far, the Magic are 1-14 against teams that are .500 or bet­ter.

Iron­i­cally, that lone vic­tory came Nov. 13 (112-97) against the 76ers in Orlando.

“You have to win some of those games. I know they’re hard, I know those teams are re­ally good, but for us to get where we want to be, we have to beat some of those teams as well,” Magic cen­ter Nikola Vuce­vic said. “You need to win against those play­off teams if you want to have a pos­i­tive record.”

Five of Orlando’s next seven games come against teams with a win­ning record, in­clud­ing its first meet­ing with ri­val Mi­ami (Jan. 3).

Dur­ing the past 10 games, the seven teams ahead of Orlando have gone at least 6-4. The Magic are 4-6.

The 76ers and Bucks, mean­while, are a com­bined 15-5 in that stretch.

It’s been an up-and­down De­cem­ber for the 76ers, who have had a fiveg­ame win streak and a fourgame los­ing streak.

Cur­rently they’re on a three-game win streak af­ter beat­ing the Bucks 121-109 on Christ­mas.

The 76ers made a fran­chise-record 21 3-point­ers, while All-Star cen­ter Joel Em­biid posted 31 points and 11 re­bounds.

He also helped limit Bucks for­ward Gian­nis An­te­tok­oun­mpo to 18 points on 8-of-27 shoot­ing.

When asked what kind of a de­fender the 7-foot Em­biid is, Clif­ford replied: “Scary. Scary good. In­cred­i­bly good.”

Em­biid’s abil­ity to cover large ar­eas with his size un­der­lies his clos­ing speed, a char­ac­ter­is­tic at which Clif­ford mar­veled.

“His pick-and-roll de­fense is as good as it gets, and he has clos­ing speed. Guys’ll be by him by like a step or so and he catches them at the rim, which is, in this league, you don’t see many guys who can do that,” Clif­ford said. “It’s what makes him to­tally unique to I’d say al­most any­body else in our league, as great as our league is.”

Magic point guard Markelle Fultz spent two sea­sons in Philadelph­ia with Em­biid and said the de­fen­sive play of his friend and for­mer team­mate is driven, in part, by com­pet­i­tive­ness.

“He’s a great com­peti­tor. At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to,” Fultz said. “He gives the ef­fort on the de­fen­sive end. He doesn’t want to be scored on. He doesn’t want his team to lose.”

The last time the teams met, Vuce­vic led seven play­ers in dou­ble fig­ures with 25 points and 12 re­bounds. Fultz, in his first reg­u­larsea­son game against the team that drafted him No. 1 over­all in 2017, fin­ished with eight points, four re­bounds and three as­sists.

The 76ers were on the sec­ond night of a back-to­back set and played with­out Em­biid.

Philadelph­ia also will be play­ing back-to-back games this time around. Af­ter fac­ing Orlando on Fri­day, the 76ers will be in Mi­ami on Satur­day.

The Bucks, mean­while, also will be in­volved in a back-to-back set when they take on the Magic. Mil­wau­kee plays in At­lanta on Fri­day.

JOHN RAOUX/AP

Magic coach Steve Clif­ford directs his play­ers against the Bulls on Mon­day. The Magic recorded a sea­son-high 13 blocked shots in their 103-95 vic­tory.

JOHN RAOUX/AP

Magic cen­ter Mo Bamba dunks the ball against the Bulls on Mon­day night in Orlando.

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