State of the Magic: Harris, Harkless searching for groove

When last season ended, Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless seemed as much of a part of the future of the Orlando Magic as anyone on their roster.

With almost a third of this season already in the books, trying to integrate the two young forwards into the player rotation could be as big of a challenge as any facing coach Jacque Vaughn.

The difficulty of that balancing act was evident Friday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers. While Harris came off the bench to play nearly 15 minutes after a nine-game absence in his latest setback from a high left ankle sprain, Harkless was never used at all for the first time all season.

After starting in 20 of 27 games following his acquisition from Milwaukee in February, Harris is learning to adapt to the role of a reserve. More than that, he is learning how to block out any anxiety following an injury that made him a spectator for every game except for when the Phoenix Suns were in town Nov. 24.

“It was real disappointing for me,” he said. “But I kept my spirits high, and I knew it would work out for the best. So I had my head in the right place and just did my rehab and focused on getting the ankle healed. It’s great to be back on the floor.”

Harris showed no reluctance when it came to shooting from 3-point range in his first game back or when Vaughn increased his workload at Oklahoma City and Chicago. While he didn’t connect on either of his attempts against the Bulls, he pulled down seven rebounds in just more than 20 minutes.

Vaughn played Harris and Harkless together to start the fourth quarter as part of a lineup that also included Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O’Quinn. Not until after all four of them were taken out did the Bulls began to whittle away at the Magic’s lead.

It remains to be seen how much Harris will be used as a small forward and Harkless as a shooting guard.

“As everyone gets back into a complete flow, we’ll have a substitution pattern that will be planned out,” Vaughn said. “I don’t think you always go by who’s hot that night.”

“If we want to win games, and that’s our goal, we have to buy in together and know that this is a team effort each and every night,” Harris said.

The 23 minutes which Harkless played against the Thunder were a clear indication that his seat on the bench was nothing close to permanent. He still ranks second on the Magic in steals, with most of those coming when he started at small forward for the first 13 games. But his free-throw shooting, which he worked on improving over the summer, is even worse now than what it was his rookie season.

“Maurice is still a part of what we’re doing,” Vaughn said. “We’ve got a long way to go with this.”

Something that should benefit both Harris and Harkless is an upcoming schedule well-suited for more practice time. The Magic don’t have another back-to-back until Jan. 10-11 at Sacramento and Denver.

With Harris back in uniform, Solomon Jones has been on the inactive list for the past three games. The veteran power forward and center had played more than eight minutes only once since returning from an injury to his left knee.

What’s Hot

It should come as no surprise that the return of Nikola Vucevic meant an end to the Magic’s days of regularly being outrebounded by double digits. After getting hammered 56-34 by the Philadelphia 76ers, 45-31 by the New York Knicks and 60-43 by Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets, the Magic battled the Cavaliers and Thunder on almost even terms in that department and finished with a 54-45 advantage against the Bulls.

While his offense has been inconsistent, Glen Davis has become more reliable in other areas. He had nine rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals at Oklahoma City and ended up with 11 rebounds and two blocks at Chicago despite a painful left shoulder.

What’s Not

The Magic have cooled off noticeably from 3-point range. They missed 36 of their 54 attempts in losses to the Cavaliers and the Thunder before improving against the Bulls with a 5-for-12 showing. Victor Oladipo is 0 of 4 in his last two games from that distance and was 3 of 12 overall at Chicago.

Jameer Nelson has never beaten all that steady of a path to the free-throw line throughout his career. But the infrequency with which he has gotten fouled in the act of shooting or in penalty situations is more glaring than usual. He has shot only 37 free throws in 22 games, although the Magic will accept that as a trade-off for him being able to average 33.2 minutes less than two months shy of his 32nd birthday.

Quotes of the week

“I can’t lie to you. I saw myself. I saw myself on the wing. It never leaves my mind or leaves me. Whenever I watch the Magic play, I remember how it all started.”
— Dennis Scott, admitting to flashbacks to his career in Orlando and seeing a bit of himself in Arron Afflalo while watching highlights in the NBA TV studios, where he now works.

“That probably would drive a coach crazy right there because all coaches are reaching for is consistency. The 3-point line is the same at home and on the road. So you would think you would have a consistency. If you can do it at home, you can do it on the road.”
— Vaughn, on the subject of the Magic’s allowing of 10 or more 3-point field goals in each of four games during a recent six-game road trip. Their defense in that area has been better in their three latest contests away from home, where they have given up a total of only 14 3-pointers.

“We have to learn to come out and get good starts in every quarter.”
— Oladipo, after the Magic let a 76-73 lead through three quarters against the Cavaliers disappear. The Magic had increased their lead to six points to open the period before getting outscored 19-3 over the next five minutes, mostly with Oladipo on the bench.

Numbers game

6: Beginning Wednesday night against the Utah Jazz, the Magic will have their longest homestand of the season. It wraps up with a 5 p.m. game on New Year’s Eve against the Golden State Warriors. As if to offset that, six of their first seven games in 2014 are on the road.

3: Vucevic has posted three double-doubles in four outings since missing four consecutive games because of a sprained left ankle. He had 12 points and 14 rebounds at Charlotte, 13 points and 16 rebounds at Oklahoma City, and 10 points and 11 rebounds at Chicago. Although Vucevic grabbed 13 rebounds in the loss to Cleveland, he was held to six points.

2: The Magic’s 83-82 victory Monday night at Chicago was only their second in games decided by five points or fewer. The other was a 94-91 win Nov. 13 over the Bucks in which they needed 36 points from Afflalo to rally past a team currently with the NBA’s worst record (5-19).

This day in Magic history

Dec. 17, 1992: With Nick Anderson scoring 25 points and Shaquille O’Neal adding 22 points, 20 rebounds and seven blocked shots, the Magic improved to 10-9 with a 112-91 rout of the Sacramento Kings. It was the first time in the Magic’s brief history that their record had been above the .500 mark that many games into a season.

Tweet of the week

Harris is the most active member of the Magic when it comes to tweeting his followers. Many of his posts are about Tennessee or the Vols’ basketball team.

You can follow Ken Hornack on Twitter @HornackFSFla or email him at khornack32176@gmail.com.