Orlando Magic staking place in burgeoning playoff race

Evan Fournier has talked openly about the Orlando Magic and the playoff all season. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images)
Evan Fournier has talked openly about the Orlando Magic and the playoff all season. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

The midpoint of the season is nearing for the Orlando Magic. The team is starting to plant a flag in the playoff field and separate itself from the pack.

Players and coaches for the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets both discussed how important Monday night’s game would be.

Evan Fournier said facing and beating the teams close to the standings almost count as double because of the tiebreaker implications. Coach Steve Clifford recalled how the Magic’s two losses to the Nets last year cost them at the end of the season — the two teams finished tied for sixth at 42-40.

Nets coach Kenny Atkinson echoed all of this. He said before the game how he expects the Magic and Nets to battle to the end of the season for the final playoff spots. Everyone associated with the game seemed to understand the potential implications of this game. Never mind the immediate one-game separation between the teams entering Monday’s game.

You would have had a hard time convincing the crowd inside the Amway Center that the game had such huge stakes.

Maybe it was the team’s energy — both came in sluggish, as Clifford said after the game neither team seemed to play with their typical energy. Maybe it was the date in the calendar — it is still early January and a big West Coast trip looms for the Magic to determine a lot of their season. It still feels too early to look too hard at the playoff race.

Maybe the game will not actually matter down the road. Although who was to say that a pair of close January losses, including losing a 20-point lead at home, to the Nets would not cost the Magic the 6-seed at the end of the year considering the Magic and Nets were tied at 42-40 at the end of the year.

These games do matter. The Magic know it. The Nets know it.

The playoff battles may not be as intense. But the battle lines are drawn.

The least consequential thing it seems is the fact Monday’s win moved the Magic past the Nets for seventh place in the Eastern Conference. The Brooklyn Nets’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday and the Orlando Magic’s win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday extended that lead to one game.

Orlando is not breathing any sigh of relief. But the team’s recent win streak has given the team some cushion. The Orlando Magic lead the Charlotte Hornets by four games for the final spot in the playoffs.

The Eastern Conference had already started to separate itself. The top six teams — Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers — are all better than .500 and separate from everyone else. Orlando currently trails Indiana by four games for sixth.

The Magic are essentially as close to the Pacers for sixth as they are to being out of the playoffs completely.

The teams chasing that final playoff spot are not that impressive.

The Hornets have been a really nice story and have far outperformed preseason expectations. Devonte’ Graham is playing like an All-Star. But the dark circle around the Hornets is their -6.5 net rating. They are 25th in the league in this metric that many believe is a real sign of how good a team is.

Orlando will face a difficult matchup with Charlotte on Jan. 20 at the end of this coming road trip. That game has major implications for the Hornets to stay in the playoff race.

Behind the Charlotte Hornets is the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons are about to lose Blake Griffin possibly for the year with a balky knee. They have had a ton of injuries and are supposedly considering trading star Andre Drummond.

There are the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls at least have shown signs of life. They might be the most dangerous team chasing the final playoff spot. Chicago is eighth in the league in defensive rating.

If there is a team that could make a run like the Magic made last year, it is the Bulls. But that run feels just as unlikely as the Magic’s run last year.

And that is, of course, the other point in all this. The Magic were 5.5 games out of the final playoff spot when they started making their 22-9 run to the playoffs. Orlando is not out of the woods yet or counting on their playoff spot.

This six-game road trip will determine a lot of where the Magic might sit at the end of the season. Where the Magic stand coming out of this road trip could very well determine whether they can make the playoffs comfortably or if they will have to scramble to recover.

The good news is that Orlando once again has a fairly easy schedule starting in February.

The Magic to this point have played the ninth-toughest schedule in the league according to ESPN’s NBA RPI standings. Coming out of this road trip is a difficult test featuring the Oklahoma City Thunder, Boston Celtics and LA Clippers at home before back-to-back games against the Miami Heat.

Orlando’s next 11 games to the start of February are going to be difficult. This is a gut check for the Magic.

But the schedule gets easier — although not as easy as it was last year after Jan. 31 — from that point forward. Orlando is rounding into form and definitely has a bit of institutional knowledge and poise from last year’s playoff run. That is part of how the team has started to straighten itself up lately.

Clifford has said time and again his goal for the team is to be getting better as the year goes on. If Clifford’s plans and coaching works out, then the Magic are still working to get better.

Today, Orlando is slowly solidifying its playoff position. The team is slowly staking its claim to a spot in the playoffs. And, perhaps, a comfortable spot.

Will the team be able to do more and threaten for more? Will they have to scratch and claw to stay in seventh?

The Magic still have a lot of work to do. They are not the team they want to be. And their focus should be on themselves and improving themselves.

Still, players — especially Evan Fournier — have talked openly about the playoffs. They know these games matter. Fournier was talking about the two games against the Pacers in November as vital to the playoff hunt (the Magic lost both). The players know these games matter.

There is a different tinge to this January. Orlando took a big win over Brooklyn to climb up to seventh. The FOX Sports Florida broadcast is displaying the standings regularly.

This team is talking playoffs and talking seriously about them.

Next. Wesley Iwundu's return to the rotation solidifying Magic's defense. dark

The Magic are staking their place and planting their flag. The intrigue is to see how far they can climb.