In the end, the regular season was only another cog in the process for the Magic. One more tick mark that needed checking before moving on to the next phase of the rebuild — an important Draft with two lottery picks and big decisions to make.
The entire season was almost dominated by talks of that Draft and what was to come this summer. Nobody — on the court, at least — was going to skip the step that would come from these 82 games. There is a lot of growth and development that can come in those games. While the wins and losses might be meaningless for the long-term plan, how players improved and developed remained important.
That seemed to be the point that was driven home with the expectations the media set for this team and the talk that came from the locker room. Eyes were on the big prize, even if that would come a few years down the road and even if that will come with different teams (as it inevitably must) for several players currently on the roster.
The final result of Wednesday’s game against Indiana was largely inconsequential. Growth was made over stretches this season. The Magic seemed content to move forward to the grueling summer and the individual improvement that has to come with that. Maurice Harkless was the only starter to play more than 30 minutes and Doron Lamb logged nearly 40 minutes in this game. It was time to move on from 2014.
The Pacers won relatively easily 101-86 over the Magic in the season finale at Amway Center on Wednesday, moving the ball and looking comfortable with most of their bench players in the game. Both teams probably got what they wanted heading to the next stage of their seasons.
The Magic hope that means brighter days ahead.
“I really believe in the process of working your way toward being really good and being an elite team in this league for a really long time,” Jacque Vaughn said. “And believe me, we are dedicated to that process. We have good men in the locker room who want to get better and they got better this year. I am extremely proud of the men in that locker room. So, indeed, there are better days ahead.”
That is what Magic fans are hoping after suffering through another 20-win season — the Magic did improve by three games over last year by reaching 23 wins. They want to see that light at the end of the tunnel. The Draft helps.
There were still moments from the players on the court to remind us of what is to come for this team.
Arron Afflalo scored seven points in his 6:15 of work. That efficiency is something he wanted to improve upon off of last year. Maurice Harkless showed hisslashing and cutting ability with a team-high 14 points on 5-for-9 shooting. Confidence continues to come off this 20-year-old forward. Andrew Nicholson made his cameo with 10 points on 4-for-8 shooting. E’Twaun Moore had 13 points off the bench too.
Victor Oladipo gave the fans one last highlight with a steal and breakaway dunk on his final possession of the game before he exited after 17:24.
Oladipo was the greatest curiosity of the season as a rookie. He was a raw bundle of talent learning to play point guard and learning how to play in the NBA. In the end, he turned out to be what the Magic hoped for in his rookie year. He brought energy and took to the game quickly. He still has a ways to go, but Oladipo can count his first season in the NBA as a success.
“Just being out there is a blessing,” Oladipo said. “Just playing with these guys and wearing this jersey . . . A year ago I was dreaming about doing it, and now I’m doing it. I had a lot of ups and downs in the season, a lot of good games, a lot of bad games, but at the end of the day I’m playing basketball for a living. I’m blessed and fortunate to do what I love.”
The whole experience was surreal for sure. As it must be for any rookie.
It was tough though because it came with all the losses. That is something a lot of these players were not used to. It had to make them hungry for the summer.
That is where the Magic’s real work must be put in. The young players have to do what they can in the summer to make themselves better and bring it back to the team. Next year, team success will become more of a focus as the Magic try to move forward with this long process.
If you believe the players, they are hungry for that next challenge.
“We just got to work hard over the summer and come in next summer with a hungry attitude and just go out there and go get it,” Harkless said.
Onward and upward.