It wasn’t long ago when the Orlando Magic were one of the NBA’s biggest surprises, and the Philadelphia 76ers were the league’s favorite punching bag.
Now the Magic are searching for answers while the 76ers are no longer a pushover.
Elfrid Payton played a key role in Orlando’s win at Philadelphia in November, and he’ll likely be pressed into the lineup with Victor Oladipo sidelined again Wednesday night when the host Magic look to continue their dominance in this series.
After losing 62, 59 and 57 games in the previous three seasons, Orlando (20-20) jumped out to a promising 19-13 start under first-year coach Scott Skiles. That optimism, however, has faded while the club has struggled to score in dropping seven of eight.
The team’s top three scorers – Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Tobias Harris – were held to a combined 22 points on 8-of-28 shooting in Monday’s 98-81 loss at Atlanta. Since averaging 104.0 points during a 7-2 stretch, the Magic have scored 88.9 per game in their past eight.
"We need to figure out what we’re going to do," Aaron Gordon told the team’s official website after scoring a team-high 18 points. "There’s no easy answer and we’re going to work. And work we will."
It certainly doesn’t help that Oladipo will miss a second straight game because of a sprained right knee. He had been averaging 20.4 points while hitting 18 of 27 from 3-point range in five games since replacing Payton in the starting lineup.
Payton returned to the first unit Monday, finishing with 16 points and five assists but also committing five turnovers. The second-year guard, who was drafted by Philadelphia and immediately traded to Orlando, led the way with 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting with five assists and two turnovers in a 105-97 win over the 76ers on Nov. 7.
The league-worst 76ers (5-38) have lost 26 of the past 32 meetings and 13 of 15 in Orlando, but they’re much improved from when the Magic last saw them. Since opening 1-30, they have won four of 12 games and forced overtime in their last two defeats.
Philadelphia lost one of those to Chicago before cruising past Portland 114-89 on Saturday for its most lopsided victory, then fell 119-113 in double overtime to New York on Monday. Jahlil Okafor finished with 20 points, Nerlens Noel added 18 with 13 rebounds and former Magic guard Ish Smith had 16 points and 16 assists but shot 8 for 28.
The 76ers are playing better on both ends, scoring 112.7 per game over their last three and surrendering 96.0 in regulation in their past four. They’ve shot 48.3 percent from the field in the last seven games after previously hitting 42.0 percent.
Smith, acquired from New Orleans on Dec. 24, has averaged 20.4 points and 8.6 assists over his last five.
"We’re getting better, and the excitement to go play games gets us going again," coach Brett Brown told the team’s official website. "I think Ish’s arrival has pushed us forward."
There could be lingering hard feelings between Noel and Orlando’s Jason Smith after Noel was ejected in November for retaliating when Smith elbowed him in the ribs.