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Apr 4, 2024 5:41 pm

Pursuing playoff spot, Magic out to avoid distractions vs. Hornets

banchero

The Charlotte Hornets probably could benefit from a distraction in the final weeks of the season.

The Orlando Magic really can’t afford to lose focus.

The teams meet Friday night in Charlotte, where Hornets coach Steve Clifford is bound to draw attention.

There has been time to digest Wednesday’s announcement that Clifford will step down as Charlotte’s coach at season’s end and likely to move into a front-office role.

“It’s what I need, I feel,” Clifford said. “I need to find something now that’s more of a behind the scenes, (be) more of a resource. It’s just best for me to step aside.”

Clifford’s 241 victories rank first in franchise history. He also coached the Orlando Magic for three seasons (2018-21), guiding them to two playoff appearances.

So perhaps Friday night’s game is a full-circle situation.

The Magic (45-31) have won three in a row and look to strengthen their playoff positioning. They entered Wednesday fourth in the East, a half-game ahead of the New York Knicks.

“These are big games,” Magic coach Jamahl Mosley said. “We trust these guys to be able to continue to work.”

Orlando defeated New Orleans 117-108 on Wednesday night for its fourth victory in its last five road games. Paolo Banchero’s 32 points marked his highest total in a game for the Magic since mid-February.

“With a lot of the distractions that could have taken us away from this game (at New Orleans), they did a great job of responding the right way,” Mosley said. “Being able to bounce back no matter what the distractions were within the game.”

Banchero is giving the Magic the right touch.

“He’s a special kid,” Mosley said. “The way in which he plays, finds his teammates. Just his ability to keep trusting his team and his team to have the ability to trust him to make the right play down the stretch. It’s just continued growth.”

Charlotte (18-58) has lost nine of its last 10 games, including Wednesday night’s 89-86 home setback to lowly Portland.

The Hornets are hurting, and the problems compounded by midweek when forward Miles Bridges (wrist) and guard Vasilije Micic (shoulder strain) joined center Nick Richards (foot) on the bench with injuries. Bridges had been the team’s leading scorer in the previous three games.

“We got a lot of guys out,” Hornets forward JT Thor said. “We’re going to try to make the most of it.”

Thor took a starting role and had nine points in 27 minutes against the Trail Blazers.

“At his best, he’s a very good defender,” Clifford said. “He has had some really good rebounding games.”

Orlando defeated the Hornets twice last month, winning 101-89 in Charlotte and 112-92 at home to improve to 3-0 in the series this season.

Cole Anthony was the Magic’s leading scorer in two of those triumphs against the Hornets, with Banchero the top scorer in the other.

For Charlotte, Bridges and Micic were the top scorers in one game apiece against the Magic, so their potential absences heighten the challenge facing the Hornets.

–Field Level Media

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