With injuries to starters, Aaron Gordon and Markelle Fultz have to step up

The Orlando Magic hit the ground running this season. But they have their share of injuries to key starters that may hurt the team unless Markelle Fultz and Aaron Gordon can step up.

The Orlando Magic are starting to feel the injury bug early in the year.

Evan Fournier has missed the last two games and is questionable for Wednesday’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Michael Carter-Williams is out and likely to miss the next few weeks with a bone bruise and sprained ligament in his left foot. Chuma Okeke is out indefinitely with a bone bruise in his surgically repaired left knee. James Ennis has been out since the preseason with a hamstring injury.

Aaron Gordon just had his minute restriction raised as he still recovers from a strained hamstring suffered in August during the NBA’s seeding round to conclude the 2020 season.

The team has faced more than its share of hardship early on this season.

Players will say none of this matters in the end. It is always “next man up.” The games continue and teams have to find a way with the players they have filling in and stepping up.

With all the injuries to the team, eyes are clearly turning to Markelle Fultz and Aaron Gordon to step up. That was a key to the turnaround from the first half to the second half in Monday’s win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Markelle Fultz had five turnovers in the first half and turned around to record six assists without a turnover in the second half.

Many of those assists went to Gordon who had 13 of his 24 points in the third quarter. He finished with a 6-for-9 3-point shooting performance and looked the healthiest he has looked all season.

Those two performances turned that game around. And they will need more of those as they get some players back from injury and navigate a difficult schedule.

Key injuries to starters have bitten the second-best team in the Eastern Conference at this early point in the year. But the upcoming schedule will be super tough to pull off victories with the Orlando Magic playing the Milwaukee Bucks (4-3), Boston Celtics (5-3) twice and the Brooklyn Nets (4-4) in a six-day period.

This upcoming road trip and stretch of games that begins even Friday with a Texas back-to-back against the Houston Rockets (2-3) and Dallas Mavericks (3-4) will be the most difficult two-week stretch the Magic see in the first half of the season.

The team will need extra contributions from Fultz and Gordon if they want to maintain the position they are in now, because the injuries are starting to add up, and it all started last year.

Both have had their moments this year.

Fultz is averaging 14.3 points per game and 6.1 assists per game this season. But he is shooting just 39.6-percent from the floor overall and a 41.6-percent effective field goal percentage.

His playmaking and control over the tempo of the game have been huge steps forward. But his offense has been inconsistent to this point. To the detriment of the team.

Gordon has struggled the most this season. He is averaging 13.7 points per game and 7.0 rebounds per game while shooting 31.0-percent from beyond the arc. His overall field goal percentage has jumped over last year’s mark thanks to Monday’s performance, shooting 46.8-percent and now a 52.6-percent effective field goal percentage.

But Gordon has not looked as springy or as in rhythm until the last two games.

The Magic have faced some struggles trying to fill in all these absences. And now that they are piling up, it is clear the Magic need more consistency and a step up from both of these key players.

There are plenty of other players who have to step up too.

With Fournier out, the Magic started Carter-Williams, relying on his defensive energy and veteran expertise even if he gives the team very little floor spacing — he shot 2 for 15 and 0 for 6 from three in the last two games as a starter.

The team also had to play Cole Anthony more, throwing him into the fire before he was ready. Clifford said fans need to give Anthony a break because he was playing in lineups and in roles the team has not had the time to prepare him for.

This could be a good thing for the future of the franchise as throwing a player of Anthony’s stature in the fire early can spring some early confidence as well as tear a player down if they do not live up to their internal expectations of who they have believed they truly are.

The team got some good news in bringing back Mohamed Bamba at the end of Monday’s game for the final four minutes. Bamba has been trying to rebuild his conditioning following a positive COVID-19 diagnosis in June. The Magic are still trying to work him back into the rotation.

Despite these injuries and numerous questions about the team going forward, the Magic have somehow managed to move into second place in the Eastern Conference. They have feasted on a relatively easy schedule — the combined record of the team’s the Magic have beaten is 13-20. The Cavaliers are the only “winning” team the Magic have beaten so far.

Every win counts the same. So excuses will not do.

A large part of the reason why the Magic have had success is they have been dominant on the boards. The Magic are currently the third-best rebounding team in the NBA. Which leads to limited possessions for opponents and fast-break opportunities for easy buckets for the Magic.

Clifford may have to ask for a little more from the current players who are healthy because of what they are experiencing with the injury bug this early. This team can weather the storm and stay in prime position if players like Gordon and Fultz can step up and be more consistent.