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Orlando Magic

Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic are just good enough to be bad.

They are mediocrity’s children, sprinkled with a touch of misery. At 11-17, they are a playoff tease, an aspiring eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, cluttered with lousy teams. Only eight of the 15 teams in the conference have winning records, making the playoffs a very attainable goal for the Magic.

We have enough of a sample-size at 28 games. A little more than a third of the season is complete, and the Magic now show equal signs of competence and futility. It is who they are. Magic management has cobbled together a good enough team that can win on any given night. Magic management has cobbled together a bad enough team that can lose to anybody.

They could easily have beaten the 6-19 Hawks on Saturday night in Atlanta only to have a meltdown in the closing minutes. As they are prone to do, it was rather epic.

With the score tied at 110, Kent Bazemore picked off a cross-court pass from Jonathon Simmons and dunked with 36 seconds left. Shelvin Mack’s 3-pointer from the corner was tipped and came up short. Bazemore then got the rebound with 21.6 seconds left and was fouled by Nikola Vucevic, After making two free throws, Bazemore then stole the ensuing inbounds pass from Elfrid Payton.

Game over, but the up-and-down drama continues for a while.

Orlando’s predicament goes back to the opening premise. Mediocrity in the NBA is No-Man’s Abyss. The goal for bad teams is to sink low enough to rise up with viable lottery picks. The Magic have tried that with very little success. The bounce of the ping-pong balls have not gone their way. It is the main reason — other than someone named Dwight Howard — that the Magic have not made the playoffs since 2012.

They got the right guy in Victor Oladipo in 2013, only to send him away in a misguided trade last season (see Ibaka, Serge). They got the wrong guy in Mario Hezonja in 2015, the fifth-overall selection and just one pick after the New York Knicks snagged Kristaps Porzingis.

He would have been a difference-maker for this team. Hezonja will become an unrestricted free agent next season, Orlando’s call and a signal that things have gone bust.

The good news is that the Magic seem to be on the right side of history now. They do have a nice batch of players, even if there is no superstar, the final arbiter of success and failure in the NBA.

The problem is that a bunch of them are currently unavailable. Aaron Gordon (18.3 ppg.), Evan Fournier (18.3 ppg.), Terrence Ross (9.0 ppg.) and Jonathan Isaac (6.1 ppg.) all missed the game against Atlanta with various injuries.

In a brutal two-way gut punch, the Magic lost Fournier to an ankle sprain and Gordon to a concussion with the span of a few days. They both are on the TBD timetable. Neither injury looks serious, but the Magic are not in position to dawdle.

That dark abyss looks like the likely scenario for the 2017-18 season: A one-and-done appearance in the playoffs, or a lottery pick that comes too late on Draft Night to make a significant impact, at least short-term.

At least the fan base isn’t screaming, most likely because people named Jacque Vaughn and Rob Hennigan have left the building.

The Magic will not lose games by design any more. They will lose simply because they don’t have enough talent to compete consistently every night.

At one point, things will flip. But if you are marking 2018 as the year that the Magic find their way back to relevance, you may want to find an eraser, as well as more patience.

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Orlando Magic

Orlando Magic

Frank Vogel employed an unusual starting lineup Sunday night to combat the Boston Celtics’ lethal pick-and-roll combination of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford.

With Elfrid Payton still out with a hamstring injury, Vogel started Jonathon Simmons at point guard instead of Shelvin Mack.

Simmons is a natural swingman, so he’s not ideally suited to run an offense. That said, Simmons is the Magic’s best perimeter defender. At 6-feet-6, Simmons was the Magic’s best bet to slow down Irving and disrupt the pick-and-roll combination of Irving and Horford.

Circumstances foiled Vogel’s plan and contributed to the Magic’s 104-88 loss.

Simmons picked up two fouls within the game’s first 4 minutes, 25 seconds. That foul trouble forced Vogel to sub out Simmons for Mack. On the ensuing play, Irving scored on a driving layup with Mack defending.

Simmons played just 21 minutes because of his foul trouble. In that time, he scored 14 points with one assist.

“When you’re shorthanded at one position and you have a plan to your guy, Simms, at [point guard] for pretty big minutes and he’s in foul trouble the whole night, obviously it changes things a lot,” Vogel said.

Vogel made no other changes to the starting lineup, which included Terrence Ross, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic.

Payton returned to full-contact practice on Saturday, but he still missed his eighth consecutive game Sunday.

Team officials want Payton to heal fully before he plays again.

The schedule should help the Magic, who won’t play again until they host the New York Knicks on Wednesday.

“Elfrid Payton looked really good in practice [Saturday],” Vogel said. “The hamstring was still a little tight afterwards — enough to give us some concern not to push through it just yet. We’ve got a tough stretch coming up where we’ve got eight of 10 on the road and we have two days behind this game to make sure it’s fully behind him. So we’re going to give him one more game.”

D.J. Augustin missed his second consecutive game because of a strained left hamstring.

Irving finished with just 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting and five assists.
Happy for Mack

Mack knows Celtics coach Brad Stevens well.

Stevens coached Mack at Butler University. Together, their Bulldogs finished as the NCAA Tournament runner-up in 2010 and again in 2011.

“Shelvin’s a special guy to me, obviously,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy [for whom] it wasn’t easy early in the league. He’s not a guy that you would’ve said was a for-sure NBA player coming out of high school. In fact, you probably would’ve said, ‘I’d be surprised [if he reaches the NBA].’ But the amount of work that he put in and how committed he is to the game is why he’s where he’s at, and he’s really transformed himself into a point [guard]. When he was playing for us [at Butler], he was playing mostly off the ball and [was] scoring because we needed him to score. But he’s a great competitor. He’s a really good guy. And I’m happy for him that he’s here.”

Layups

• A moment of silence was held before the national anthem to honor the victims of Sunday morning’s mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

• Gordon led the Magic in points (18) and rebounds (12).

• Vucevic finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds and a team-high seven assists. The double-double was the 200th of Vucevic’s career.