There was a giddiness in the Magic locker room following Monday's win over the Timberwolves. This win just felt good. It took a special effort and revealed a lot about this Orlando team.
There is, of course, just one question left to answer: Yes, this team can compete day-to-day and game-to-game, but is this is a .500 team, is this a winning team? Is this a Playoff team?
"Win as many games. Have a winning record. Maybe make the playoffs," said J.J. Redick when asked about the team's goals for this season. "You don’t want to be on a losing team. That’s never an expectation you want to set for yourself. That’s never the bar, it’s never the standard you want to set for yourself. You want to be on a winning team."
That is definitely the attitude the Magic needed to take with so few people expecting much from them. Orlando may have already taken advantage of some teams taking the team a bit lightly without a "superstar" to dominate the ball. Orlando's 11-13 record has certainly made ESPN eat its 16-win prediction (or maybe it led them to get hired by Memphis . . .).
This Magic team should continue to compete and surprise if teams do not begin to believe the most optimistic predictions now.
It is easy to race ahead after thinking of where the Magic have been or where they were supposed to be. There is still very much a grind for the Magic to get through. And the goal of reaching .500 is very much one the team has in mind as a first step to returning to the early Playoff picture.
Monday's win, both for the way it happened and what it meant — the team's first three-game win streak — was a big step in achieving that goal and getting back on track after that rough start early on.
"It’s big for us [to win a third game in a row], especially where we’re trying to head and the opportunity that we have coming up in the next couple days to get to .500," Glen Davis said. "We’ve got to take one game at a time. We can’t lay back. Our tempo has to be up. Our motor has to be going in order to get these games."
Effort is indeed always important for this Magic team. That fight and constant effort has become the hallmark of this team.
Getting above and to that .500 mark is another story. It takes consistency and confidence to do that. J.J. Redick noted that the team is playing with extreme confidence right now — that comes with winning and playing well — and the continuity with the lineup and rotation now that Orlando's early spat of injuries have worn off have helped the Magic establish a comfort and rhythm.
"I think we’re building confidence with each win," Arron Afflalo said. "Confidence always breeds confidence. The better you play as a team, the more you believe in your ability as a team. I get the feeling when we step on the court, we expect to win right now. And that’s how it should be."
That is a lot more than most "experts" projected for the Magic at the beginning of the season. Of course, the team is not so concerned with the outside expectations for the team. J.J. Redick said as much. He said the team has its own internal individual and group goals they want to achieve which include being on a winning team and making the Playoffs.
This recent stretch where Orlando has won six of its past nine games has shown the team can compete with just about anyone and can give many different types of teams problems. Those three losses also show Orlando still has to be wary and execute on offense, keeping the turnovers down and keeping the ball moving.
The Magic are 8-1 in games where they have 25 or more assists but 4-10 when they commit 15 or more turnovers. These are key numbers for the Magic to consider as they continue their quest to return to .500 and get back into the Playoff race.
And .500 is where the Magic need to get to make the Playoffs (the Celtics at 12-12 are in the final Playoff spot).
The important thing, as Jacque Vaughn would say, is to stay in the now. To focus on the task at hand and not race too far ahead. The Magic play only two teams with a record better than .500 the rest of the month (the next seven games). They will also play some of the worst teams by record the rest of this month — including two games against Washington and a game at Toronto, where Orlando lost earlier this season.
The confidence is growing though.
"I really try to keep things simple," Jacque Vaughn said. "I’m pleased in the improvement we’ve made individually and as a team. We’re playing harder as a team and that’s fun to see. We believe in each other, but we still know we have a lot of work to do. And that’s exciting also. I think the growth is coming each game that we go into we have a good spirit about ourselves, a good feel about each other that we believe in each other and we’ll continue to play 48 minutes."