Orlando Magic’s early test will be a battle with the Western Conference

The Orlando Magic would like to peak heading toward the end of the season. These first 10 games out of the All-Star Break will provide a stern test.

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has an eagle eye on the big picture. He might say that every game is about individual preparation but he has always built a lot of that preparation on the long game. He always was trying to prep his team for this moment.

Clifford’s mantra for much of the season and regarding most players is to be better at the end of the season than they were at the beginning. For him, the marathon of the season is about getting better as it nears its end and to be peaking toward the playoffs.

That was the case last year. It was at this time of the year the Magic began to coalesce and go on a deep playoff run. They went 22-9 to finish the season at 42-40 and clinch a return to the playoffs for the first time in seven years on the penultimate game of the season.

The Magic find themselves needing a similar run to get back to .500 and go back on that run, although it may not be necessary to make the playoffs this time around.

Orlando is just a game ahead of its pace last year sitting at 24-31 at the All-Star Break. Unlike last year, the Magic do not have ground to make up. They hold a three-game lead over the Washington Wizards for the final playoff spot and a five-game lead over their next closest competitor, the Chicago Bulls.

The Orlando Magic still have something to play for, trailing the Brooklyn Nets by two games for the seventh seed. The teams still have three more meetings.

Working in the Magic’s favor is they have the third-easiest remaining schedule in the league by opponent win percentage. The Magic should be able to pick up some wins and go on a similar run.

If Clifford is able to deliver on his goals again, the Magic should be able to pick up some steam again.

The road out of the All-Star Break is not easy though. In fact, it might be one of the most challenging stretches the Magic face the rest of the season. It will feature some of the toughest challenges for this team.

While the difference between the Eastern and Western Conference might be narrower, the Western Conference is still the tougher conference. The Magic would be 10th and 5.5 games out of the final playoff spot if their record was in the Western Conference.

How they play in the first 10 games after the All-Star Break will be a tough test and proof of whether the team has truly made those improvements and is on the right track.

It will not be easy.

Clifford has never had a winning record versus the Western Conference in each of his seven seasons as head coach. He currently sits at a .413-winning percentage (83-118) against that other conference.

As the playoff race heats up, we would like to dive a little deeper into the Magic’s immediate future.

The NBA has set up a test for Clifford to start the home stretch:

*Western Conference games bolded

Fri, February 21 – vs. Dallas Mavericks (33-22, 7th West)
Mon, February 24 – @ Brooklyn Nets (25-28, 7th East)
Wed, February 26 – @ Atlanta Hawks (15-41, 14th East)
Fri, February 28 – vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (16-37, 14th West)
Sat, February 29 – @ San Antonio Spurs (23-31, 10th West)
Mon, March 2 – vs Portland Trail Blazers (25-31, 9th West)
Wed, March 4 – @ Miami Heat (35-19, 4th East)
Fri, March 6 – @ Minnesota Timberwolves
Sun, March 8 – @ Houston Rockets (34-20, 5th West)
Tues, March 10 – @ Memphis Grizzlies (28-26, 8th West)

You are seeing that correct.  Seven of 10 out-of-conference games in a 20-day span to get the second half underway.

Orlando is currently 7-14 against Western Conference opponents. The team is 2-3 against the teams they will face in this stretch. But most of those games happened earlier in the season.

Interestingly enough, the four games on the road listed above are the only times they will be traveling to face Western Conference teams for the remainder of the season, making this opening stretch all the more significant.

It could work to their advantage getting these contests out of the way. Not having any long West Coast trips remaining is certainly an advantage — the Wizards take a West Coast trip in about a week and the Bulls go out West in early April.

That is no solace to the Magic. They have to take care of their own business. Orlando’s test comes early.

If they can steal just a few of these games, they are in prime position to hold onto their second-place standing in the Southeast Division and capture that elusive eighth playoff seed.

The 10-game stretch sees the Magic facing off against all three Texas teams — the Spurs and Rockets being the away games and the post-break schedule starting off by hosting the Mavericks at home.

They will also have a two-game series vs. the Timberwolves. While Minnesota is near the bottom of the standings in the Western Conference, they have a different dynamic since acquiring D’Angelo Russell at the trade deadline.

Entering March, the Magic will play host to the Trail Blazers and they will finish off the 10-game stretch taking on the Grizzlies on the banks of the Mississippi River.

During the course of the next 20 days, a clearer playoff path for the Magic should emerge.

It could prove tough on Clifford and fans, however.

The optimist will show you the combined record of the Western Conference teams the Magic are soon to face is a respectable winning percentage of .488 (159-167). But a pessimist may show you these teams bring a winning record against the Eastern Conference. Their out-of-conference play has been solid where they combine for a 65-54 record versus Eastern Conference foes this season — a .546 winning percentage.

While this year’s second-half stretch of West foes is significantly more challenging than last year’s stretch, there is reason to be optimistic. The Magic were 4-1 out-of-conference last season after the All-Star Break.

They will not need to spend too much time out West as only four road games left there, so this can certainly work in the Magic’s favor as the remaining 17 games after this stretch all take place east of the Mississippi.

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The Magic clearly have an opportunity to advance their standing. The schedule sets up that way. But the first 10 games will be a true test for the team.

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