The Orlando Magic had their backs against the wall down 17 at home to the Memphis Grizzlies. They responded and began their real Playoffs.
There are 10 games between the Orlando Magic and their goal. Ten games from considering the season a success or failure. Ten games between feeling accomplishment and feeling empty.
They have everything to lose and gain with each game and each moment. That is a lesson the team has had to learn from the beginning of the season. Each misstep and missed opportunity will sting. None more than the ones that come now.
Every loss feels like it has more meaning now. The pressure is ramped up. And the teams that are making the playoffs are starting to play their best. The Magic are chasing that final playoff spot they have to play at a higher level to get where they want to go.
Orlando will have its backs against the wall these final 10 games — no matter the opponent.
And with seemingly no chance to win the game and no momentum heading their way, Orlando found a way to do it in a 123-119 overtime win over the Memphis Grizzlies at the Amway Center on Friday.
The crowd hung on every shot. Every possession was filled with tension. One misstep could send the team home or to a frustrating defeat. This is how every game will be like when the playoffs begin in April.
The playoffs have truly begun already for the Magic. If Orlando wants to play deep into April and find any kind of success, they will need to rise to the occasion under these circumstances.
In the fourth quarter of Friday’s game, that is exactly what they did. They rose to the occasion. They found a way to win, adjusting where they needed to and simply making plays when they had to.
Friday night, the Magic experienced a small taste of what playoff basketball may feel like and look like. The Amway Center rocking and hanging on every possession, pushing their team to a win and the pressure of dangling off the edge.
It was a small test — one that will get more difficult with each passing game and as that final regular season game draws nearer. But one the team passed. Orlando has to pass these tests now. There is no more room for serious errors.
Friday’s game was not how things should be, of course. The Magic would probably admit to themselves they did not play the way they needed to play. Nor how they are capable of playing. This was not the game to come to this realization and get this experience.
Memphis took complete control of the game without many of their best players — a relative skeleton crew for the team. But the Magic did not play physically and put their thumbs to the game. They let the Grizzlies dictate the pace of play.
Down by 17 points in the third quarter, Orlando could see its playoff dreams begin to slip away. Or so it would seem.
This game would not bury the Orlando Magic’s chances — the Miami Heat would end up losing to the Milwaukee Bucks on the road. But it would have been another opportunity lost. Especially at the Amway Center and in front of a crowd eager for something good to hold onto after a long rebuild.
The tension and pressure inside the building were palpable. The Magic needed this game. They need every win they could get. And their chances would eventually run out.
Time was slipping away. This was not an opportunity the team could let go.
Finally, the tension was real. Their backs were truly against the wall. This was not really the end of the road, but it felt like it was a “win-or-go-home” situation for the Magic. They could not suffer another loss to the dregs of the league, especially considering their closing schedule.
They had to find a way. Scratch and claw and find a way. The pressure was on all the way and the Magic had to rise to the challenge. And a loss was not acceptable.
It happened first on defense. The Magic tightened their coverages and got much more physical with the Grizzlies, keeping Tyler Dorsey out of the paint. They closed out and started rotating better. That helped them hold Memphis to 5-for-18 shooting and five turnovers.
But Orlando had to be nearly perfect on offense too. At least the team had to be after the Magic missed eight of the first nine shots of the quarter. They were still down nine with 7.5 minutes to go.
Orlando came back slowly but surely. Terrence Ross hit three of his eight 3-pointers in the quarter, sparking that final push to get back into the game. But the Magic still had to make plays down the stretch.
Down by four with 1:21 to go after a Justin Holiday three, the Magic had to steal momentum back. Nikola Vucevic hit a short jumper before the Orlando had to work to get stops and get the ball back. That is when out of a timeout Evan Fournier delivered.
Overtime was just as nip and tuck with the teams exchanging the lead on almost every possession. An Evan Fournier three gave the Magic an edge, but also plenty of nerves. Eventually, it was Nikola Vucevic pacing the Magic through and Evan Fournier burying the big shot. Orlando built the cushion out to three when the team almost blew it. Some fortunate free throw misses helped the team maintain the lead.
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All through it, the crowd was engaged and loud. Coach Steve Clifford saying after the game he told his team this is what the Orlando crowd can do for the team when they are engaged. It is safe to say Magic fans at the Amway Center are fully invested in this Playoff race now too. They created a Playoff atmosphere inside the arena.
The fact is, the playoffs are already here for the Magic.
The desperation and need to win every game is already present. The pressure to make a push and pick up win after win is already here. And everyone can feel it.
They have ground to make up and they will have to play with more intensity. There is no room for the team not to show up for three quarters as they did Friday night. Their comeback was as much out of desperation as it was out of skill. Orlando gave itself a challenge and rose to it — barely.
Their competition will not give them many more opportunities. Six of the team’s final nine games are on the road and only three are against teams not currently in the playoffs. Orlando has done well to take advantage of this five-game homestand, but now they must prove their worth on the road against tough competition.
No game in the playoffs will be easy. To win in the playoffs, the team has to be able to beat the best consistently. This closing schedule will give the team a taste of that. To make the actual postseason, the Magic will have to prove their worth on the floor.
The playoffs have certainly begun for the team. The pressure is real. The desperation to scratch out wins is real.
The Magic got that feeling for the first time in Friday’s game. That feeling will persist through the final nine games.
How they respond, will determine their ultimate fate.