Magic eager to reverse struggles
Orlando returns from holiday break with back-to-back games.
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.
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.
Magic center Mo Bamba dunks the ball against the Bulls on Monday night in Orlando.