The Orlando Magic are in the Playoff hunt again. They will experience a pressure many players have not seen and fans might have forgotten.
Coming out of the All-Star Break before the Orlando Magic’s game against the Chicago Bulls, it was clear players conceptually knew what they were about to enter. This was a 23-game sprint to the finish in a tight Playoff race where they still had ground to make up.
Players said as they entered that first game after the All-Star Break that every game had to be played with Playoff intensity. Opponents — whether they were in the Playoff hunt or not — would be playing their sharpest. And the games would demand full attention and execution.
Saying that and doing that were obviously different things.
Friday night, the Magic objectively played hard. But they struggled to make shots and then lost focus defensively for a long stretch of time. The plucky Bulls team took advantage taking the lead in the second half and forcing the Magic to scramble back.
From there it was Orlando’s own mistakes — missed free throws and a mistaken foul from Aaron Gordon — that cost the team the game. Against a then-14-win team, the Magic let an opportunity to gain ground go. There was no getting it back.
The message was still sent. The games were going to be intense. And what the Magic thought was focus and intensity was not quite where it needed to be. They would need to sharpen their focus.
The team had a focused effort defensively that fed the offense, allowing it to go through some fallow periods. Outside of transition defense (and really only for a short stretch in the second quarter), coach Steve Clifford called it one of the Magic’s most complete performances of the season.
The challenge is always the next day. And against the Eastern Conference-worst New York Knicks with a chance to tie the Charlotte Hornets for the final Playoff spot at the three-quarters mark of the season, the Orlando Magic will need their absolute focus again to take care of business on the road.
Keeping that focus is the biggest task for the team with its (on paper) easy schedule and the path to victories that seem ahead.
Of course, that gets to the other part of this adventure for the Magic. An adventure that many on the team are experiencing for the first time.
The intensity and pressure to win is only going to increase from here.
Every game and every moment will come with more importance. Every little domino that falls can set everything in action and change the season. Everything feels like it has more importance now. And that feeling is what will really separate who makes or misses the Playoffs. It might well come down to one game.
Yes, it is true that loss to the Bulls in December could be just as vital as the one in February, but the one the Magic suffered last week certainly feels bigger.
It is the same fallacy about fourth-quarter play. Objectively, there is nothing different about a play in the first two minutes than the last two minutes. But the pressure that comes with the dwindling clock causes mistakes that might not happen otherwise and truly separates teams out.
That will happen here. Everyone can feel it from the players to the fans. The pressure is going to increase and the team will have to be sharper in its focus and more precise in its execution. That is what the Playoffs will require anyway.
But that requirement will only get bigger and bigger as the season wears on.
This is the exact feeling everyone lives for.
Even as fans, it is easy to forget just how intense the Playoff chase, let alone the Playoffs themselves, can be. Fans can feel the tension of every possession and the intensity of every game. It is a truly different feeling.
Something that is easily taken for granted when a team makes the Playoffs regularly (and that is not necessarily a bad thing) and something easily is forgotten when a team does not make the Playoffs for a while.
Clifford’s return — along with a more experienced front office — has worked to help the Magic regain some institutional knowledge for this moment. The team has to remember what it takes to make the Playoffs and have some guidance on how to prepare for these moments. It is tough to go into it without that preparation and experience.
Clifford said he has stopped practice on a few occasions to point out how the team might prepare or focus on something differently when the Playoffs come around. He is already preparing his team for the Playoffs in many ways.
With veterans like D.J. Augustin and Terrence Ross as the only players who have been through the experience of postseason battles on the roster, the team is going to have its growing pains as it experiences this pressure.
But with their goals clearly in sight, the Magic will have to push through all of that. They will have plenty of tests to get through on that journey there. They will have to pass them all or face falling behind as the pressure to make up ground grows.
Then again, that is what this league is all about. How does a team respond to pressure?
This Playoff chase is the dream. The pressure that comes with it is the question they have to answer to get there.