State of the Magic: Maurice Harkless steps up as starters go down
With Arron Afflalo, Jameer Nelson and now Victor Oladipo all missing games of late, Maurice Harkless has developed into an indispensible member of the Orlando Magic.
Such a scenario would have been impossible to imagine as recently as last month’s All-Star break. Minutes had become so scarce that Harkless never came close to joining Oladipo in participating in the Rising Stars Challenge in New Orleans featuring first-year and second-year players.
But when the Magic travel to San Antonio for their game Saturday night against the Spurs, Harkless will be looking to extend his streak of games with double-digit scoring and more than 30 minutes played to six. Even the return Wednesday night of Afflalo didn’t put a dent in the playing time of the 20-year-old forward, although that was largely the result of Oladipo being unavailable due to a sore left ankle.
"It’s staring you in the face in the sense of there’s only a certain amount of people who can play on the floor," coach Jacque Vaughn said of a possible reduction in minutes for Harkless. "Arron’s our leading scorer and our most efficient player, and a coach doesn’t forget that. But you also appreciate the fact that Mo’s taking advantage of his minutes."
Harkless began regaining the trust of Vaughn by being part of the young, high-energy lineup the Magic put on the floor to begin the fourth quarter. In their 103-102 victory Feb. 7 over the Oklahoma City Thunder, he played the entire final period and was responsible in large measure for a 1-of-7 shooting performance by Kevin Durant over the last 12 minutes.
Much like Kyle O’Quinn, Harkless has endured stretches of inactivity and the tendency of role players to be more effective at home than on the road. The Magic had lost 16 consecutive games away from Orlando before winning at Philadelphia in their final game of February.
"Those things can sometimes affect young players," Vaughn said. "But there’s a toughness that can be gained if you can fight your way through that and be a professional and be ready to play, no matter how many minutes or the situation."
Harkless had 15 points and a season-high five steals in the 101-89 loss to the Rockets. His aggressiveness on defense early on helped force Dwight Howard into four first-quarter turnovers, much to the delight of a considerable portion of those in attendance.
Afflalo’s dressing area in the Magic locker room is right next to that of Harkless. The veteran of seven NBA seasons made it clear that Harkless, who spent only one year in college at St. John’s before turning pro, can come to him for advice at any time.
"As he gets older and matures more and gets more into developing his skills and growing in the NBA in general, I think our bond will become even closer," Afflalo said.
Nikola Vucevic has averaged 18.2 points and 12 rebounds over the last five games. He made his first seven shots against the Rockets, including four jump shots and a pretty left-handed tip-in. In the previous game, his 17 rebounds were the most for him since grabbing 21 in early November in a victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.
Tobias Harris has missed only two of 33 free-throw attempts in the last six games. A 72.1-percent shooter from the line in 27 games last season after being acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks, Harris is up to 82.1 percent in 42 games this season.
Oladipo might have shown the first signs of hitting the rookie wall in the two games before not playing when the Rockets came to town. He missed four of 10 free throws and handed out just one assist in 26 minutes at Miami and followed that up the next night by hitting three of 10 shots and turning the ball over four times with Nelson out against the Sixers.
The Magic are only 4 of 27 from 3-point range in their last two games. Excluding Harkless, they have gone a collective 1 of 20, with E’Twaun Moore accounting for the only successful attempt. Afflalo went 0 of 4 from that distance in his first game in almost two weeks.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
"I don’t really care about how many games I missed. It’s the same feeling. So I’ll be back in the gym and everything and locked in mentally where I need to be at a higher level Saturday." — Afflalo, after finishing with a team-high 18 points in his first game since spraining his right ankle during the second overtime Feb. 21 against the New York Knicks.
"I was surprised not to see Oladipo. I think he has a great opportunity here in Orlando to be awesome. He has had some great games this year. He has led this team and he is a young guy. Once the game starts to slow down from him, he is going to be one great player." — Howard, after his first game in Orlando as a member of the Rockets also marked the first game Oladipo has missed since being drafted second overall.
"I can control the offensive end only to a certain extent. But defensively, I can control whether I’m ready to compete or ready to play hard." — Ronnie Price, who went scoreless in 24 minutes against the 76ers in his first start since Feb. 14, 2012 while a member of the Phoenix Suns. Price had two steals and was on the floor when the Magic held the Sixers to six points in the first seven minutes of the fourth quarter.
555: The Magic have made at least one 3-point field goal in 555 consecutive regular-season games, although for a while Sunday night against the 76ers, they seemed in danger of being blanked for the first time since March 17, 2007. They went 0-for-9 through the first three quarters until Harkless connected early in the fourth quarter.
56: When LeBron James scored 61 points Monday night, he broke the Miami Heat single-game scoring record. The old mark was set against the Magic when Glen Rice torched them for 56 points on April 15, 1995. Michael Jordan holds the record for most points in a game against the Magic with 64.
1.02: With three blocks against the Rockets, including a crowd-pleasing rejection of Howard in the fourth quarter, O’Quinn has now blocked 51 shots in 50 games. His 1.02 average is all the more impressive considering the second-year center isn’t averaging 15 minutes a game off the bench.
THIS DAY IN MAGIC HISTORY
March 7, 2010: It didn’t make them entirely forget what happened nine months earlier in the NBA Finals, but the Magic held on for a 96-94 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. The Magic took a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter and avoided overtime when Kobe Bryant missed a 20-footer with 1.2 seconds to go. Vince Carter had 25 points while Howard added 15 points and 16 rebounds in what was the Magic’s fifth victory during a season-high eight-game winning streak.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
— Adonis Thomas (@AllDayThomas) February 25, 2014
Adonis Thomas suited up in an NBA game for the first time last week when the Magic were at Washington. Both Thomas and Dewayne Dedmon were signed earlier this week to second 10-day contracts.