For the first time in the Stan Van Gundy era, the Magic are chasing a Southeast Division title. It is an unfamiliar position for Orlando, which has been used to having its pecking order already decided — or fighting for the ever-elusive home court advantage throughout at least the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
This year, the Magic have had struggles and the rest of the Eastern Conference has gotten better. That has left Orlando fighting just for home court and trailing Chicago for the team’s traditional perch in the top three teams of the conference. The Magic trail the Bulls by 3.5 games entering Sunday for the third seed and sit 2.5 games ahead of the Hawks for home court in the first round.
Most fans would consider home court advantage to be pretty important. The team’s record indicates that too. The Magic are 24-10 at home and 16-13 on the road. With a big West Coast trip on the horizon, banking home wins and improving that road record are pretty important if Orlando plans on moving up the standings.
But Stan Van Gundy insists this team has its focus elsewhere.
“Our focus, just because of where we’ve been and the type of season it’s been, our focus has been less on the standings than ever,” Stan Van Gundy said. “I’ve never been real big on that anyway. I’m telling you this year, we have not one time even mentioned where we are in the standings or where this game gets us. It’s all about trying to play better and from there, if we are playing well enough, the standings, the playoffs, the seedings will take care of itself.”
Fans may take that as a bad thing. But considering Orlando knows it will have to go through at least two of those top three teams — Miami, Boston or Chicago — to get to the Finals, righitng the ship at home might be best for the team. As Van Gundy said, taking care of yourself will be the best way to take care of everything else.
The road to the NBA Finals through the Eastern Conference is as tough as it has been since Van Gundy came to the team.
This week’s trio of games showed how good Orlando can be — a 12-point comeback against New York and that 24-point comeback against Miami — and how much farther the team has to go — a 14-point fourth quarter and rebounding troubles against Chicago. There is greatness in this team. And that can be shown in scoring margin.
John Hollinger of ESPN Insider wrote on Thursday in advance of Orlando’s game with Miami: “The best predictor of future success is scoring margin. Miami’s plus-7.6 mark is tops in the league, and Orlando’s plus-6.0 is within a point of all the other contenders getting much more ink. Both those marks look even better if you consider recent play, which as I mentioned above is another major factor in playoff success.
“The Magic, meanwhile, have 10 double-digit wins in their last 19 outings. Take that in for a second — they’d be 10-9 in their last 19 even if they spotted the other team 10 points.”
This season, Orlando has a plus-5.8 points per game differential and a plus-6.2 efficiency differential. The per-game differential is sixth in the league and fourth in the East. Chicago boasts a plus-6.1 points per game differntial and Miami has a plus-6.8 differnetial (second in the league). Orlando is probably right where the team should be in the standings according to this metric, but as Hollinger points out Orlando has lots of victories by wide margins.
Orlando has this West Coast trip coming up and play 12 road games to seven home games for the rest of the season. Chicago has 11 road games (including today’s game against Miami) and 11 games at home. The Bulls’ schedule seems to line up favorably for them. Atlanta, who is chasing Orlando, has seven games on the road and 13 games at home, including a six-game home stand next week.
“I don’t really pay attention to the standings until the last 10 games, to be honest with you,” Jason Richardson said before Friday’s game. “Right now, I feel like if we go out there and take care of business, everything else will happen the way it’s supposed to be. Just continue to win, that’s all we can control.”
Orlando has one game remaining against each Atlanta and Chicago. There are still opportunities for the Magic to move up. But they might have the toughest road to get there. Certainly, Orlando still controls whether it can get home court advantage in at least the first round. The rest will just have to take care of itself.