Magic can't afford slip-up vs. Pelicans
Five of the Orlando Magic's six losses in las sex weeks have come against teams with losing records.
Orlando can hardly afford another.
The Magic (33-38) host the New Orleans Pelicans (31-42) on Wednesday night and enter the game 1 1/2 games behind Miami for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Pelicans are coming off a 129-125 overtime win in Dallas on Monday night, a win that snapped New Orleans' six-game losing streak.
Orlando has won its past two games, scratching to get at its first postseason berth since 2012.
"In past years, this time of year we'd already be planning our vacations, unfortunately," All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, who arrived in Orlando a season after the Magic's last playoff appearance, said on NBA.com.
"It's much different now and much more fun. As a basketball player and a competitor, you want to be in this situation, fight for something, play for something and be in the big moments. So, it's up to us to respond."
New Orleans has been eliminated from playoff contention in the Western Conference, and disgruntled star forward Anthony Davis is limited to about 20 minutes per game. But the Pelicans are finding something to play for, as young players are getting a chance to showcase their skills.
One of those is former Orlando point guard Elfrid Payton, who has ripped off five consecutive triple-doubles. The Magic sent him to the Phoenix Suns in February 2018 for a second-round pick, and he landed in New Orleans as a free agent last summer.
Payton had 19 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds against Dallas.
"He's been playing that way. He has been doing a good job for us," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry told reporters recently.
"The rebounding part, to me, has been the biggest surprise. To be a point guard and be able to come up with double-digit rebounds night after night after night, that is really tough to do. Any time they mention you in the same breath as (Russell) Westbrook, you have to feel really good about it. If they mention you in the same breath as Oscar Robertson, that is another whole area."
Pelicans post Julius Randle scored 30 points Monday night. He poured in a career-high 45 against Portland last week and is averaging 21.3 points for the season.
Vucevic has been the driving force behind Orlando's playoff push, as he is averaging career-high totals of 20.7 points and 12.1 rebounds. He could join Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard as the only Magic players to average 20 and 12 for a season. Howard did it four times; O'Neal twice.
"The thing that Vooch does naturally -- which separates him, in my opinion, from other centers -- is when he has the ball we are organized because of his decision-making and understanding who he's on the floor with and what they can do," coach Steve Clifford said to the media.
"It's invaluable to have anybody else on the floor who can do that other than your point guard, particularly a center who can play like that. In many ways, when he's out there, it's like playing with two point guards."
Orlando won the first meeting against the Pelicans, 118-88 in New Orleans on Feb. 12. Vucevic had 25 points and 17 rebounds in the win. Payton was out because of an ankle injury.
--Field Level Media
Updated March 19, 2019