The Magic are sort of limping to the postseason fighting injuries and trying to find a way to rest their key players before the Playoffs start. Stan Van Gundy stressed his team is going to have to be playing its best — or consistently good — basketball entering the playoffs. There is no switch to flip.
That became apparent in the last week when the Magic went on an 8-0 run in the final four minutes against the Hawks to tie the game, seemingly awakening from the malaise of a low-scoring game. Orlando failed to execute down the stretch and lost the game. It happened again in Friday’s win over Charlotte when the Magic slowly, on the back of Dwight Howard, pulled away while maintaining a healthy 10-point lead (at least).
The Magic have been, for the better part of the year, good but not pretty good. Certainly not like the tear they took into the postseason last year.
It is easy to forget, considering the Eastern Conference Finals flameout in 2010, how good Orlando was entering the postseason. The Magic finished the year on a 19-3 kick and rolled through the first two rounds of the playoffs. In those final 22 games, Orlando had an average margin of 13.5 points per game. The Magic had the largest scoring differential in the league of 7.5 points per game (for reference, the Lakers were at 4.7 and the Celtics were at 3.7 and the Cavaliers were at 6.5).
In addition to that, the Magic had seven wins by more than 20 points and only two games decided by fewer than five points (and one more that reached overtime).
Orlando was on a tear at the end of the 2010 season. This year is a quite different story.
With six games remaining, Orlando is 10-6 in the same closing kick that the team ripped through last year. In that stretch Orlando has won just a single game by more than 20 points and has six games decided by five points or fewer. The Magic have only nine wins by 20 or more points. Last year that number was at 12. That does not seem like a big difference, but with six games left it is very unlikely that Orlando will hit that mark (even with some of the teams remaining on its schedule).
Blowout wins are not the be-all, end-all of winning by wide margins. But you see the difference, especially in the number of close games as the season came to a close. It is said that good teams are not the ones who play in close games, they are the ones who avoid them as these close games typically tend to be 50/50.
The Magic have been involved in a lot of these close games lately, highlighting the inconsistency they have had in the last 20 games. Unlike last year, Orlando is not playing its best basketball coming down the stretch. Or at least it is not playing at a level that can make everyone comfortable entering the postseason. The Magic seem to be playing to flip the switch.
That is not a mindset anybody wants considering how the team has played throughout the season. Nobody has really seen this team put together a consistent stretch of basketball — especially since the trades. Stan Van Gundy knows his team needs rest (Dwight Howard too has acknowledged as much), but he also wants to see his team begin showing signs of life and play better. He does not feel his team is capable of “flipping the switch.”
The Magic don’t have to be winning games by 20-plus points the rest of the way in. But seeing fewer close games would be nice. A game like Friday’s win over Charlotte was nice in that Orlando’s lead was never doubt. The Magic had complete control of the game throughout. However, Van Gundy was right to be disappointed in the team’s energy and effort throughout the game. Orlando could have won that game without sweating that much.
There is definitely a balance the Magic need to find. Orlando needs a combination of two wins or two Atlanta losses to wrap up homecourt advantage in the first round (Miami’s magic number to clinch the Southeast Division is one). The first goal for the rest of the season is completing that goal. The other goal is staying healthy.
But, perhaps, the most important goal is to get the ship sailing in the right direction and finding the consistency that has been so elusive before the Playoffs officially begin.