LOS ANGELES – As if they needed any reminders about the daunting challenge ahead of them over the next two nights, all the Orlando Magic had to do was look on from their downtown Los Angeles hotel at what happened to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday and Tuesday at Staples Center.
On Monday, Cleveland actually led the Los Angeles Lakers 48-47 at the half, but it got completely throttled in the second half of a 128-99 beatdown to LeBron James and Co. A night later, while the Magic were resting up in their hotel across the street from the Staples Center, Cleveland had a 34-33 lead with 10 minutes left in the first half, but again it got steamrolled late in the night – 128-103 in this instance to the Los Angeles Clippers – as superstar forward Kawhi Leonard became the first player in franchise history to score at least 40 points (43) in less than 30 minutes (29).
Thus far this season, five teams have played the Lakers and Clippers on back-to-back nights in Los Angeles and they have limped out of town with a combined 1-9 mark. Not only that, but seven of those defeats have been by double digits and the losses have been by an average of 19.2 points per game.
Next up to take on the LA/LA challenge are the Orlando Magic, 19-21 and winners of five of their last seven games. The Magic’s task will be made even more difficult by the fact that they will have just one healthy point guard (Markelle Fultz) tonight. D.J. Augustin (sore left knee) and Michael Carter-Williams (sprained left shoulder) have already been ruled out of action again. Also, standout shooting guard Evan Fournier (right quad contusion) is listed as questionable to play after being “kicked’’ in Monday’s win in Sacramento.
“It’s just going to be by committee,’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said of the back-up point guard role. “We’ll have different guys (bringing the ball up court) – and we worked on it some this morning – but we’ll do some five-man, conceptual stuff when Markelle’s not into the game.’’
In hopes of fortifying a power position that was weakened by the losses of Jonathan Isaac (left knee sprain) and Al-Farouq Aminu (right knee surgery), the Magic signed forward Gary Clark to a 10-day contract on Tuesday. To make room for him, Orlando had to waive third-string point guard Josh Magette. That move came before the Magic were aware that Augustin would have a reoccurring pain in his left knee and before they knew Carter-Williams needed more time before returning. Now, the Magic will try and make do with one point guard against Lakers’ ball hawks Avery Bradley, Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
“I mean, (the Augustin injury) caught us totally off guard. We thought he was fine, but that’s the way it happens in this league, unfortunately,’’ Clifford said. “(Carter-Williams) is just not ready yet. He’s closer but, he’s not ready yet. The one thing we don’t want to do is – when those guys get back, we need them to be healthy. We don’t want to do something where (Carter-Williams) plays before he’s ready, either.’’
Forward Aaron Gordon, who had the game-winning basket with 1.1 seconds remaining in Monday’s game in Sacramento, said the Magic will go into this back-to-back with plenty of confidence that they can win regardless of their injury situation.
“Not daunting at all,’’ Gordon said confidently. “It’s just a challenge and this is why you play. It’s an opportunity to come in here and get two big road wins.’’
To get a win tonight against the Lakers, the Magic must try and slow down the do-everything talents James, who has averaged 25.5 points, 10.7 assists and 7.8 rebounds a game on the season. Orlando could potentially catch a break what with superstar forward Anthony Davis (27.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.6 blocks a game) questionable because of a back injury suffered on a hard fall.
The Lakers have gone 3-0 during Davis’ absence as James has averaged 33.0 points a game during that run. Former Magic center Dwight Howard (7.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game) has played a part in the Lakers’ dominance with a revitalized season of his own.
Both the Magic and Lakers are at their best when they are using their long-armed and aggressive defenses to dictate games. Orlando is first in the NBA in fewest points allowed per game (103.5), while the Lakers are third (105.1). The Lakers rank third in opponent field goal percentage allowed (43.7 percent), fourth in 3-point field goal percentage allowed (33.3 percent) and are first in blocked shots per game (7.3). The Magic rank 12thin field goal percentage allowed (44.9 percent), 15thin 3-point percentage allowed (35.3 percent) and fifth in blocks per game (6.2).
The Lakers won a defensive battle 96-87 in Orlando in the first meeting between the two teams. That night, James had a triple-double (25 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists) despite making just 11 of 24 shots. Davis had 16 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, but he hit on just six of 20 shots against Orlando’s defense. As for the Magic, they didn’t fare any better against L.A.’s massive frontline and shot only 42 percent from the floor and made only eight of 26 3-point shots.
“You just have to move the ball against them,’’ said Magic guard Terrence Ross, who made just two of 11 shots against the Lakers in the first meeting of the season in Orlando. “They have a lot of length, but if you move the ball and play with purpose, it will give you a chance.’’
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