Can the Magic Bump the Heat?

As the regular season comes to an end, I am actually quite optimistic for the Magic to finish strong, thanks in large part to some friendly scheduling from the NBA.

With 14 games remaining, the Magic play 11 games against teams hovering around or below .500.  Overall, the Magic really have the ability to win any of these final games, including matches against the Bulls, Hawks, and Knicks.

As of right now, the Magic are 4.5 games behind Miami, a pretty large gap with so few games remaining, but a favorable slate of opponents for Orlando could give the Heat a sprinted race to the finish to win the division.

Orlando’s End-of-Season Schedule

Date Opponent Home/Away   Win/Loss Potential & Explanation
     
3/16 Away   Likely Win
Although only a game and a half back from the Eastern Conference’s 8th playoff seed, the Bucks continue to struggle against the league’s best teams.  Milwaukee has limped along since February, not only losing to Denver, Phoenix, and Boston (scoring only 56 points…), but also to the Wiz, Pacers, and Clippers.  Things are definitely slumping in Milwaukee.
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3/18 Home   Toss-Up
Carmelo who?  In the 10 games since shipping Anthony and Billups to NYC, the Nuggets are 8-2, including a one-point overtime loss to Portland.  Whether this success is longlasting remains to be seen, but the Nuggets have clearly figured out some form of a winning strategy on the fly with their new-look roster.  Denver is a puzzling team to figure out, so this game’s a definite toss-up.
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3/21 Away   Solid Win
While the Cavs have somehow miraculously beaten the Knicks (twice) and Lakers in the last 3 weeks, they have lost to everyone else.  Chock those three wins up to pity/sympathy from the basketball Gods because this Cavs team, honestly, shouldn’t be beating anyone.  No problem here for the Magic.
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3/23 Away   Toss-Up
The Knicks remind me a lot of the Magic immediately after their big December trade, trying to develop team chemistry while coming up short in winnable games.  The Knicks have beaten Miami, Atlanta, and Memphis, but received a beatdown from Indiana on Sunday and have lost to New York twice.  Its anyone’s guess as to which Knicks squad will take the court for this one.
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3/25 Home   Solid Win
The Nets are a fluky team, have Deron Williams, and have strung together a 5-game winning streak.  But the team is a few years from being a legitimate, consistent contender.  The Magic should have no problem with New Jersey as long Van Gundy makes sure they don’t play down to their opponent.
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3/28 Away   Toss-Up
Going for another helping of Knickerbocker – same situation as the 3/23 showdown.  If Amare, Carmelo, and Chauncey light it up, gelling together as a unit much like they did against Miami a few weeks ago, the Magic are in for a major challenge.
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3/30 Away   Likely Win
Yes, the Magic swept the Hawks in the playoffs last year.  And yes, most followers of the NBA typically write off Atlanta as being a legitimate Eastern power.  But, I can’t really see this game as an easy victory with Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, and Al Horford on the court.  Atlanta is no pushover, but Orlando has had their number for quite a while.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hawks managed a win, but I expect the Magic to take this one.
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4/1 Home   Solid Win
Charlotte has a tough slate of games going into the end of the season, including matchups against Houston, Oklahoma City, Boston, San Antonio, Miami, Atlanta, New York, and, of course, Orlando.  And Kwame Brown is Charlotte’s center.  Ouch.  True, the Bobcats could indeed sneak in a win over Orlando, but don’t bet on it.  My guess is that fatigue will start to take its toll on an, at best, so-so lineup.  Dumping Gerald Wallace for salary purposes shows that this team is not focused on this season’s outcome.
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4/3 Away   Solid Win
Two words: Magic win.  Toronto is 7-26 in the year 2011.  The Raptors are a team that is in disarray and the Magic should have a pretty easy win. A loss here would be very bad news for Orlando.
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4/5 Home   Likely Win
If the Bucks have played so weakly through the middle of March, imagine the potentially dismal state of Milwaukee by the time the Magic play them for this game.  Yes, the Bucks could regain some footing and get back on the right track, but all signs point to this team struggling through the end of the year.  Barring a fluke, Magic win this game.
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4/6 Away   Solid Win
See 4/1.

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4/10 Home   Toss-Up
Chicago has been playing the best basketball in the East.  But, after watching how the Magic have played the Bulls, even though they have Derrick Rose streaking all over the court, the Bulls still have a lot of trouble with Dwight Howard.  Joakim Noah defends well against most of the NBA’s centers, but Dwight doesn’t seem bothered by Noah’s defense and makes Noah’s backup Omer Asik look like a high school freshman on defense.  In the March 4th game against Chicago, Howard shot 8-8.  If the Magic perimeter offense gets hot from downtown, Magic have a good chance to win.  If not, no way.
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4/11 Away   Toss-Up
Going into the end of the season, the 76ers are a definite sleeper in the Eastern Conference.  They have been playing surprisingly good basketball under new coach Doug Collins, and since this is an away game one night after a faceoff with one of the East’s best teams, this match vs. Philly has ‘trap-game’ written all over it.
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4/13 Home   Solid Win
Considering the Pacers are teetering on the conference’s last playoff spot, Indiana will likely bring a strong performance to the court for this final game of the regular season.  Yet, the Pacers just don’t have the firepower to give the Magic much of a challenge.  Magic head to the playoffs with a victory.
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According to this analysis of the Orlando’s final games, the currently 42-26 Magic would likely end up with over 50 wins, an achievement that has come to be generally expected by fans after so many consistently successful seasons in recent years.  At the same time, however, this same Magic squad has managed to lose quite a few shockers, including recent sub-par outings against Sacramento and Golden State, so it is rather difficult to pinpoint an exact final record for the Magic.

Playing in Orlando’s favor, Miami actually has a slightly tougher regular season finish, facing the Thunder and Celtics on top of Denver, Atlanta, and Houston.

But, although the Heat face a few more difficult games, I think Miami has built up enough wins already to hold off a final push from Orlando.  I just do not see the Heat losing enough games to let the Magic erase a 4.5 game lead and slip ahead into 3rd place in the Eastern Conference.  But, it will be close.  No matter what, the team from South Beach will not be running away with the Southeast Division crown

Just for reference, if the playoffs were to begin today, the Heat would face the 6th seeded New York Knicks.  Orlando would take on 5th seed Atlanta.

Knowing that the reward for winning the division just might be a first round series against the Knicks, and as much as I want to see the Magic win every remaining game, perhaps settling with 2nd place is not so bad after all.

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