Progress was the goal for the Magic this season. Sorry to those that had limited Playoff dreams, the Magic were still in the improvement and “strategic losing” game this year to get another high draft pick and continue building that foundation for the future.
So, again, progress was the goal.
In that sense, the schedule makers did Orlando a nice favor in helping the team measure its progress in some small sense. Orlando opened the season against Indiana, and closed it against Indiana (although that game was hardly a measure of where the team was because Indiana was resting for the Playoffs and the game had that “last day of school” feel). The Magic though also played the Timberwolves and the Nets in that first week and finished their last week against those same two teams too.
In both games (the second time around, at least), the Magic played better and played up to their potential. They defeated the Timberwolves 100-92 on April 5. They then defeated the Nets at Amway Center 115-111 on April 7 before falling in Brooklyn 97-88 on April 13.
Certainly both teams were very different at the beginning of the season than they were at the end. And the coaching staff was not about to call it quite that kind of a test of progress.
“I’m not sure because our litmus test is verse ourselves a little bit,” Jacque Vaughn said. “If any comparison happens, it is after this game, I’ll put both games on and see were we better defensively, are we moving the ball better, are we in tune with what we’re trying to do defensively. Any test will be us kind of comparing ourselves at that early stage of the game and right now.”
Let us make that comparison for him then.
Take the Timberwolves games, for instance. The first game back in November saw the Magic fall behind by double digits, fight back to take the lead only to see Kevin Love drain a 3-pointer to send it to overtime. The Magic could not execute and lost the game.
In the second matchup in April, Minnesota was shorthanded because of injury and Orlando, surprisingly, took care of business. The Magic had to gather themselves and erase a double-digit deficit against the depleted Timberwolves and find a way to wear them down and win the game. At a moment when they might have folded earlier in the season, succumbing to their youth, they pulled together an won.
The same happened in the second matchup with the Nets at Amway Center. The Magic banded together and fought off a Playoff team late in the season to secure a win. What I wrote at the time was that this was the kind of win the Magic needed to show that kind of team progress you want to see throughout a season.
With Kyle O’Quinn’s block of Joe Johnson, the Magic gutted out a win against a good team.
Was that a step forward? I felt it was at the time. The Magic learned some major lessons and finally put those lessons to earn a win. They might have put the team’s draft position in some peril, but it would have some long-term impact, right?
It was not necessarily about individual improvement. Vaughn said for him it was not about looking at individual statistics, but rather about whether Victor Oladipo could read a blitz on a pick and roll and make the right decision or whether Maurice Harkless was in the right position on helpside on defense or Nikola Vucevic was able to recover from a poor performance one night to do well the next.
Those late season games were not measuring sticks because of the opponent, but because the team put things together — even for a brief moment — to play like the team they will one day become.
“I really believe in a process of working your way toward really being good and an elite team in this league for a long time,” Vaughn said. “Believe me, we’re dedicated to that process. We’ve got good men in that locker room who want to get better and they did get better this year. I am extremely proud of the men in that locker room. They allowed me to coach them. Indeed, there are brighter days ahead.”