Orlando Magic playing better without playoff pressure

Apr 8, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier (10) defends Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade (3) during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic defeated the Miami Heat 112-109. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 8, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier (10) defends Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade (3) during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic defeated the Miami Heat 112-109. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic will miss the Playoffs for the fourth straight year. But since being eliminated a few weeks ago, their play has noticeably improved.

Since getting eliminated from the playoff race two weeks ago, the Orlando Magic have looked like a different team.

In the subsequent nine games they have gone 6-3, beating three playoff-bound teams (the Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat), as well as the Chicago Bulls, the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks. During the same span they have also lost to the Bucks, the Detroit Pistons and the Heat, but only Sunday night’s game in Miami turned out to be lopsided as the shorthanded Magic succumbed 118-96 without Aaron Gordon or Victor Oladipo.

Had the team managed to sustain such form through January or perhaps even March its season may have extended beyond Wednesday’s final game against the Charlotte Hornets in Charlotte.

As it is though, that matchup will be the curtain call for the 2016 campaign and for a young Orlando Magic team that started the season with lofty ideals that ultimately proved to be out of reach.

Still, with the weight of expectation lifted, the team’s young core has provided a late-season reminder of how different things could have been had the team succeeded in capitalizing on the 19-13 start that had fans hoping the postseason drought was finally over.

That will have to wait for another year though, as the grim reality is playoff basketball was not a large enough incentive for the Magic when it mattered most.

Now with a long summer looming, the Magic are looking more competitive, even in defeat.

In the past nine games, since the team was eliminated from the Playoffs officially, the Magic have posted a 112.4 offensive rating and 105.2 defensive rating. Their 7.3 net rating is the fifth best among each team’s past nine games. The offense is significantly better than the 102.6 offensive rating they have posted this year. The defense is slightly worse at 104.5, but the Magic have made up for it with that offensive surge.

Why has the team suddenly awoken and started playing at a high level?

Perhaps one reason for that is free agency, as a number of those players whose contracts are currently expiring have suddenly turned up to play.

Despite having a solid season, Evan Fournier is one such example, as his game has looked especially good of late. In fact, the Magic’s top free agency prospect has averaged 18.8 points per game while shooting 51.7 percent from the field in the past nine games. Compare that to the 11.6 points per game he averaged in December and the 12.2 points he averaged per game in January and it becomes clear Fournier appears to have benefited more than anyone from the absence of the pressure competing for a playoff spot applies.

Either that, or he has simply had more opportunity. Something clearly changed as the somewhat hot-and-cold Fournier suddenly swung wildly up.

He is by no means the only one though, as some of the role players who are also facing uncertain futures have stepped things up in recent games — a product of both opportunity and desperation with games winding down.

Andrew Nicholson has for instance contributed heavily to the Magic’s recent run of good form, averaging 11.8 points and 4.1 rebounds in 19.7 minutes per game in his last eight appearances.

Dewayne Dedmon is another good example, as he has logged averages of 9.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in 14.1 minutes per game, including Monday night’s 17-point, eight-rebound appearance against the Bucks.

That extra effort, especially from the role players, has been absent through long stretches of the regular season, leaving a handful of familiar faces to carry the team far too often. Such an approach rarely works in the NBA, particularly when your roster is as inexperienced as Orlando’s currently is.

The team’s recent rejuvenation may also come down to experience, as since being eliminated from the playoff race the Magic have seemingly learned the importance of starting strong.

In the past nine games, they have averaged 59.2 first-half points, which has dramatically reduced the risk of their throwing games away late — something that has haunted them all season long.

This was especially important in Monday night’s win against the Bucks, as after dominating early the Magic allowed the Bucks to reduce a 20-point lead to just four late in the fourth quarter. Unlike on numerous occasions earlier in the season though, the Magic maintained their focus and produced a play that saw Evan Fournier swing the ball to Mario Hezonja, who, in turn, dropped a big 3-pointer to seal the win.

Defense was also a huge factor in the win. And since getting eliminated from the playoff race, Orlando has recaptured some of the defensive form that proved so effective early in the season.

They have been especially good on the perimeter, averaging nine steals per game while limiting opposing 3-point shooters to an average of just 6.4 made 3-point attempts per game in the past nine games. Those numbers stand at 7.6 and 8.9 on the season, illustrating the difference a little extra effort can make.

That extra effort has been supplemented by forcing turnovers at a fairly high rate. In the past nine games, Orlando’s disruptive approach on the defensive end has resulted in opponents committing an average of 15.6 turnovers per game, a number that peaked last night as the Bucks turned it over 23 times.

Rim protection remains an issue, even with Dedmon eating up extra minutes. But whichever way you look at the Magic are once again playing the kind of defense Scott Skiles was brought on board to provide.

Whether any of these improvements carry over to next season or not will very much depend on personnel, and more specifically how many of the team’s current crop of players are still wearing pinstripes come training camp. It seems highly likely the Magic’s roster will feature a number of new faces come next season and that building the kind of chemistry the team has exhibited of late will begin again with the new season.

Next: Is Victor Oladipo's second-half surge a mirage?

That said, if nothing else these past nine games have proved the Magic’s young core — which is likely to remain largely intact — has learned some valuable lessons this season, even if dealing with the pressure of making the playoffs turned out not to be one of them.