For much of the Orlando Magic’s recent nine-game losing streak, coach Jacque Vaughn insisted he could see signs his players were getting better.
Considering the Magic went a month without beating anyone except the woebegone Philadelphia 76ers, it was understandable his comments were greeted from outside with an amount of skepticism. But the incremental improvement in a first-year or second-year player tends to be more noticeable to someone around the team daily than people who see only what happens on game nights.
"You take a guy like Kyle O’Quinn (and) his ability to play different guys on a nightly basis the last eight or nine games that he has started," Vaughn said before the Magic’s skid ended with a 95-85 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. "Mentally and physically, he is a better basketball player than he was a month ago."
O’Quinn has blocked at least one shot in every game dating back to Feb. 25 and has pulled down as many as 11 rebounds since replacing Tobias Harris in the starting lineup. Those statistics aren’t as important to Vaughn as how O’Quinn prepares himself for facing a power forward who tends to be effective around the basket, like Denver’s Kenneth Faried, or does much of his damage from near the 3-point arc, like Channing Frye of the Phoenix Suns.
"It’s not always a guy is averaging one more rebound than he did four months ago," Vaughn said. "It’s more than that for our team for what we are and going forward."
Someone else in his second season who is getting a closer look of late is guard Doron Lamb.
Not only was Lamb on the floor to start the second and fourth quarters against the Blazers, but he and Harris were the only members of the Magic to play the entire final 12 minutes.
Except for Ronnie Price, the lineup Vaughn put on the floor to begin the fourth quarter consisted of players 25 or younger. With not much at stake other than increasing or decreasing the Magic’s odds of winning the NBA draft lottery, the hope is that the example provided by Arron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson will rub off on those with far less experience.
"When you have some adversity and things look tough for you as a team in the win-loss column, their ability to sustain their professionalism in the locker room, on days off, things like that that our young guys get to see on a daily basis, it’s been huge," Vaughn said.
After registering only 28 points in the paint Saturday night at Utah, the Magic had 48 against the Los Angeles Lakers and 46 against the Blazers. Except for a 20-foot jump shot in the second quarter, all of Nikola Vucevic’s baskets in the win over Portland were within six feet of the rim. The Magic’s season high for points in the paint in regulation is 58, which they accomplished twice against the Detroit Pistons.
The Magic have moved up from 15th to 12th in the NBA in free-throw percentage since the All-Star break. And after a huge disparity in attempts during a five-game stretch earlier this month, the Magic went 23 of 30 from the line at Phoenix — compared to 8 of 12 for the Suns — and took 22 free throws against Portland while the Blazers had only 17.
Before combining for 47 points and 21 rebounds Tuesday night, Vucevic and Harris might have had their worst offensive games of the season. Vucevic went only 2 of 9 from the floor and never got to the free-throw line in 35 minutes against the Lakers, while Harris scored only 2 points in 16 minutes against the Jazz. It ended a streak of 18 games where the third-year forward had at least 10 points.
Andrew Nicholson has gone back to struggling to find playing time. After averaging 13 minutes off the bench in the first eight games after Glen Davisâ contract was bought out, Nicholson did not play at all at Utah and was on the floor for a total of 15 minutes against the Lakers and Blazers.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
"I know my best moments weren’t necessarily here. But I’m glad for guys that really did have some magical moments, no pun intended — the Penny Hardaways, the Tracy McGradys, that they were received well. As great as they were, and things may not end ideally, they were able to come back and be recognized." – Grant Hill, before being honored by the Magic as part of the franchise’s 25th anniversary. Some people had expressed concern about how Hill might be received by the crowd after seven largely injury-plagued years in Orlando, but the reaction was noticeably free of boos.
"When we play on the road, it’s a little different. Well, it’s a lot different from playing at home. You’ve got to be more physical than the other team. You have to be able to withstand runs and their energy. Just like our crowd gives us energy, other teams’ home crowds do that also." — Harris, after the Magic’s 16th victory of the season at home compared to only four on the road. The Magic need to sweep their remaining three road games (at Charlotte, Brooklyn and Chicago) to avoid at least tying the 6-35 record away from home turned in during the 1989-90 expansion season.
"He’s a little faster than me. But it just takes time, a lot of practice, a lot of work. Now we have a pretty good chemistry, pick-and-roll-wise. It’s great. I think it’ll be huge for us going into the future." — Vucevic, on getting used to rookie Victor Oladipo running the offense, especially with Nelson having missed the last four games with a sore left knee. Oladipo averaged six turnovers in the first three games but committed only three in 38 minutes against Portland.
9: The victory over the Blazers marked the ninth time this season than the Magic have held an opponent to fewer than 90 points. Their record in those games is 5-4, with two losses coming in their only meetings with the Jazz. The Blazers were averaging 107.3 points going into Tuesday night, which ranked them second behind only the Los Angeles Clippers (107.5).
2: Although Afflalo is second on the Magic in 3-point field goals made (117) and attempted (268), he has not taken one in two of their last five games. He had none in 22 minutes at Golden State in the opening game of their recent road trip and none in 34 minutes against the Blazers.
1.37: With 88 steals and only 64 turnovers, Maurice Harkless ranks third in the NBA in steals-to-turnover ratio. The only players ahead of him are Atlanta’s DeMarre Carroll and Oklahoma City’s Thabo Sefolosha.
THIS DAY IN MAGIC HISTORY
March 27, 1991: The Magic, in their second year of existence, matched what was their longest winning streak ever at the time with a 97-85 victory at Dallas. Jerry Reynolds scored 20 points and Greg Kite grabbed 16 rebounds as the Magic improved their record to 25-43 with their fourth consecutive win. It was the third time since the beginning of February that they reeled off four in a row. They wouldnât accomplish that again until December 1992, a little more than a month into Shaquille O’Neal’s rookie season. The longest streak this season has been three (Nov. 1-6 and Feb. 5-9).
O’Quinn marked his 24th birthday Wednesday. Although he played four years in college at Norfolk State and is in his second season with the Magic, he is younger than rookie Dewayne Dedmon, who will turn 25 in August.