The Orlando Magic dropped a gut-wrenching contest to the Phoenix Suns last Wednesday night on their home floor, extending their losing streak to four games (and seven of their last nine). It was the second time in a week the Magic lost to a bottom-five team in the NBA (also lost to the Chicago Bulls, 90-80 last Friday).
Their season was on the verge of preemptively collapsing in similar fashion to the way things have gone in prior years. Start off the season showing promise, run into adversity, and then free-fall to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
Steve Clifford’s second unit has been the root cause of a lot of Orlando’s problems of late. Something needed to be done; change was needed, but what could be manufactured from a roster with clear depth issues.
Coach Clifford decided Friday night against the Toronto Raptors, who entered the game atop the Eastern Conference, that he was going to shake things up a bit.
In a surprising move, Coach Clifford called on Wes Iwundu as his first man off the bench, and it worked out in a big way. Iwundu scored six points (+4 in the first half) for the Magic in 10 minutes of play in the first half. The Kansas State product provided a spark for the Magic instantly; he helped the Magic push the pace, he slashed through the lane as an available cutter, and he provided his team with deflections and defensive resistance. He finished the game with 10 points (4-7), 3 rebounds, and a blocked shot in 18 minutes off the bench.
Iwundu, in his second year in the NBA with the Magic, had logged 18 minutes or more in a game only two other times in the month of December.
“I thought he had good energy, he helps us get out and run - which we need to do more (of),” Coach Clifford said of Iwundu after the game during his post-game conference. “He is a good versatile defender and he is very smart. Whether he plays or not, he’s in here everyday doing extra. He is very good with team things.”
“Wes came in and had a great drive,” Nikola Vucevic said of Iwundu in the locker room after the game. “He came in, had a quick cut - something we don’t do enough of. It was great to see a guy who hadn’t played in so long come in ready to play - on both ends of the floor.”
“You expect to get more opportunities for him,” Aaron Gordon said of Iwundu. “He really stepped up.”
Iwundu playing a significant role on Clifford's second unit wasn’t the only change Friday night for the Magic. In equally surprising fashion, Clifford decided to alter veteran Jonathon Simmons’ role, essentially making him the back-up point guard responsible for running the offense.
“I think we were struggling and we lost four in a row and you have to do something,” Clifford said of the decision to move Simmons to point guard (and essentially sit back-up point guard Jerian Grant). “The one thing he did in the first half was, he gets the ball into the paint. He is such a good pick-and-roll player. He did play the point here (in Orlando) a little last year when there were injuries.”
Simmons had a very poor night shooting the basketball (1-11), but he responded to the challenge of his new role as the team’s floor general off the bench, dishing out six assists (two turnovers) in 20 minutes of action.
“It was big, Johnathon is a dynamic player,” Gordon said of Simmons. “He demands a lot of attention, he’s also going to make the right play. He knows how to play the game, and it was good to have him out there.”
“I think tonight, it worked well for us with Simmons at the one,” Vucevic added. “Coach wanted to switch things up a little bit, see if he could give us a boost from the bench, it worked out tonight.”
“No I didn’t change anything, I pretty much know our offense,” Simmons told reporters when asked about his new role. “It was just about executing tonight and trying to get other guys shots.”
“It was big time for me, a confidence booster moving forward,” Simmons said of Clifford’s willingness to switch things up and move guys around in new roles/positions. “I didn’t shoot the ball well tonight, but we got the win, and that’s all that matters.”
“There are two things you do when coaching, and you’re watching good or bad, and that’s what we’re doing and how you’re doing it,” Clifford said. “You can impact and do different things with your team. You have to try something.”
What Clifford and his staff “tried” Friday night worked really well, the Magic blew the doors off one of the top teams in the NBA (Toronto was missing Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas to be fair).
But building off this win, and giving Orlando’s new rotation shifts some time to examine how much things have really changed (more than 20 minutes or so) is something that is still yet to be determined.
Don’t expect any other significant changes Sunday when the Magic host the Pistons, Clifford mentioned after the game that he’s going to stick with this plan for the time being.
“We were good tonight. I thought we were more physical,” Clifford mentioned in his post-game conference. “I thought Vucevic was terrific and Aaron Gordon was lights out. He only took six shots, I thought he was absolutely lights out. Hopefully, we will have the right attitude tomorrow (Saturday) and get ready to play like this again on Sunday.”