Denton: Reserves Providing Big Spark

By John Denton
Feb. 11, 2014

ORLANDO – Orlando Magic reserves Victor Oladipo, Kyle O’Quinn and Maurice Harkless share a distinct chemistry on the court, are close friends away from basketball and have been known to trash talk and text-message one another inspirational thoughts the night before games.

How that friendship and on-court chemistry translates to basketball can be seen in the way the Magic’s second unit – one that often includes starting forward Tobias Harris and reserve guard E’Twaun Moore – has dominated games of late.

The Magic have won their last three games and own a streak of five consecutive wins at the Amway Center thanks in large part to the play of their blossoming reserves. In the last three games alone, Orlando’s reserves have outscored those from Detroit, Oklahoma City and Indiana 122-60. And the bench was never bigger than in stirring second-half rallies against the Thunder and Pacers, the teams with the best records in the Western and Eastern Conferences, respectively. In those two games, Orlando’s reserves came through in the clutch, outscoring the Thunder (23-14) and Pacers (29-18) in both tense fourth quarters.

``We feel like when we come to play and play like we have the past two games that we have a really good chance to win,’’ Oladipo said with conviction.

Added Harkless: ``I don’t think there’s a drop off at all when we come into the game. If anything, I think we give the team a boost with our energy and how hard we play.’’

Even calling it ``a boost’’ might be underselling just how good Orlando’s reserves have been over the past three games. When looking at the overall efficiency of the group – a statistic that takes into account points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, field goals and attempts, free throws and attempts and turnovers – Orlando had a plus-41 rating against Detroit last Wednesday, a plus-22 rating against Oklahoma City on Friday and a plus-32 rating on Sunday in the win versus Indiana.

To put that into perspective, only two NBA teams – San Antonio (18.1) and Denver (10) – have double-digit efficiency differentials among their bench players for the season. In addition to the 122-60 bench scoring advantage over the past three games, Orlando also has had a 54-27 edge in rebounding, a 23-7 advantage in assists and a 25-13 bulge in made free throws from the reserve players.

``It’s a young group and we’ve been in together in a couple of games where we have been down, but we’ve gone out and played all-out to try and make something happen,’’ said Harris, who had the game-winning, buzzer-beating dunk the rousing win against the Thunder. ``We’re just trying to help our team with our energy. These last couple of games it’s been successful for us. That group that we have, sometimes it’s different guys out there, but we all just have great chemistry.’’

The Magic (16-37) hope that chemistry carries over to Wednesday night when they host the rugged Memphis Grizzlies (27-23) at the Amway Center. The Magic are hoping to extend a home winning streak to six games, which would be the longest since Jan.-Feb. of 2011. They also want to close out the first half continuing to play well and go into the weekend’s NBA All-Star Game break with positive vibes.

``This game is big because it takes us right into the All-Star break,’’ O’Quinn said. ``Guys will stay ready for the second half of the season and (a win) would give us more confidence going on the road (after the break).’’ It was O’Quinn who came up with a nickname for the group of reserves when repeatedly pressed for a moniker. Last season, the group was known as ``The Breakfast Club’’ for their proclivity of arriving at the Magic facility for early-morning workouts prior to practice. This season, O’Quinn came up with ``Young Guys,’’ but that nickname ultimately morphed into the more imposing ``Young Guns.’’

``All of that stuff helps and it just shows how strong our friendship is,’’ said Harkless, who held Kevin Durant to one-of-seven shooting in Friday’s fourth quarter and Paul George to two-of-five shooting in Sunday’s fourth period. ``All of that off-the-court stuff helps our on-the-court chemistry.’’

STEADY IMPROVEMENT

Of course, the Magic getting strong play off the bench hasn’t always been the case this season. Early on, head coach Jacque Vaughn struggled to find consistent pop off the bench and the team would routinely swoon when the reserves were put into the game.

Despite the recent hot streak, Orlando still ranks 22nd out of 30 NBA teams in points off the bench (27.5 ppg.). And for the season, the reserves still have a negative efficiency differential (4.5). But that number is dramatically on the rise considering how the reserves have played of late.

O’Quinn and Harkless, bench heroes of late during the three-game winning streak, have been in and out of the rotation at times. Both kept working on their games, kept preparing through film sessions with coaches and post-practice drills and worked their way back into the rotation. Their close friendship played a major role in their belief that things would eventually turn around, O’Quinn said.

``Mo is one of my good friends and we talk a lot about basketball. When there are tough times I’ll talk to him or he’ll talk to me,’’ said O’Quinn, who blocked a career-high six shots in last Wednesday’s defeat of Detroit. ``We knew that one day it would turn around for us. And hopefully the way it is now, it will only get better from here.’’

CLOSE FRIENDS OFF FLOOR, TIGHT TEAMMATES ON FLOOR

In the glow of Sunday night’s thrilling 93-92 defeat of the Pacers, Oladipo and Harkless shared a hug and a handshake in the locker room. After praising Harkless for the way he played defensively, Oladipo cracked, ``My man, we’re going to be partners out there for a long, long time.’’

While reviewing the footage of Friday’s dramatic 103-102 defeat of Oklahoma City, Magic coach Jacque Vaughn was struck by something he found highly encouraging – Orlando thrived down the stretch with five players on the floor who were all younger than 25 years old.

Vaughn said that the common age bracket of the reserves – Harkless is 20, Oladipo and Harris are 21, O’Quinn is 23 and Moore is 24 – plays a role in their chemistry and caring for one another.

``The make-up of a team is doing your part. I don’t want to let my coaches down. It’s the same way on the floor; I want guys who don’t want to let their teammates down on every possession,’’ Vaughn said. ``They spend time with each other off the court and there’s something to be said about that. They genuinely like each other and like spending time together. That puts you in a position to challenge each other and not get offended because you are trying to better each other.’’

The friendship started over the summer when most every young Magic player stayed in Orlando throughout the offseason and were regulars at the team’s practice facility. Harris and O’Quinn live in the same downtown condominium and when they didn’t carpool, they would see which one could arrive at the Amway Center first for workouts.

Oladipo, the prized No. 2 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, was quickly integrated into that group because teammates marveled at his willing to work and his lack of ego. Oladipo, who has just one turnover in 24 minutes of fourth-quarter work over the last two games, was a hero in each of the past two wins. He deftly corralled the long rebound that led to Harris’ dunk against Oklahoma City and he scored 13 fourth-quarter points on Sunday against Indiana. Several Magic players pointed to his three-point play to open Sunday’s fourth quarter as a game-changing moment.

``That was a big play for us and I could tell by the energy from everybody that we were going to be able to get back into the game,’’ Oladipo said of his layup and free throw that jumped-started the Magic on Sunday. ``I think the biggest thing with our group is that we don’t want to let each other down. We just go out and play together and play with high energy, especially on the defensive end. We might not score, but at the end of the day we feel we can live off our defense.’’

The friendship between Orlando’s ``Young Guns’’ doesn’t preclude them from getting onto one another, and Harris playfully joked on Tuesday that O’Quinn and Harkless often ``scream at each other like little babies.’’ And when they have success, O’Quinn said they are all quick to savor the moment together.

``Any time something happens with our second unit, you feel like you are a part of it,’’ O’Quinn said. ``If you are on the court with those guys, you had some part of it. You either set the screen, occupied your man or did something to make it happen. Victor hitting that shot (to open Sunday’s fourth quarter) made us all feel like we hit the shot and it jump-started that unit.’’