Orlando Magic must still play their way into the Playoffs

The Orlando Magic have proven they can make the playoffs, but like last year they must prove their way in to foster growth. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic have proven they can make the playoffs, but like last year they must prove their way in to foster growth. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic are almost certain to make the playoffs again this year. But that is not enough. They must play their way in and peak in the final games.

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford is not one to treasure small victories. He wants to push the team to big goals and the same big-picture achievements fans want to see from their team.

Getting to that championship-level might be a long haul and a long climb, but it is the climb that makes it worth it. The grind and the work to get better and make the most of each other and yourself that make it all worth it. That is what Clifford has been best at doing in his coaching career.

But one thing made him smile about last year’s team.

That 22-9 run was a sign of how everything came together. It was a sign of what this team could be.

They achieved their goal of making the playoffs and they did it because of their own play. He said the Magic made the playoffs not because they backed their way in or started strong and struggled to finish, holding on at the last second.

They made the playoffs because they played their way in. They went out and grabbed that final playoff spot, as small a victory as it might be.

That was something the team could hang its hat on. It was a realization of Clifford’s vision and building of a team.

It is the thing the Magic are chasing. And chasing especially in the final 27 games as the playoffs seem a near certainty.

The Magic do not have the same urgency as last year for many reasons. Orlando is in the pole position for the final playoff spot. They do not need to make a frenzied run to get to the playoffs.

But there is still a lot to play for. And a lot to gain from the final 27 games.

Orlando has to play their way into the playoffs if they want to make good on their development as a still-young team.

Being stuck as the 7- or 8-seed is not ideal. Nobody wants to be stuck in those lowly playoff positions. And, more importantly, nobody wants to be in the playoffs with a record below .500.

The Magic have made the playoffs just once in their 31-year history with a record worse than .500. They won 40 games in 2007 for Dwight Howard‘s first playoff appearance.

If they want to gain anything from a second straight playoff appearance, they need to do what they did last year and play their way in, streaking into the postseason rather than backing their way into the final playoff spot.

Clifford’s main goal for the team was to get better as the season progresses. He wants them peaking at this time of the season. The Magic have that much to play for.

If the Magic want the benefits of a second straight playoff berth, they must make good on this promise.

Despite the similarities, this season has been very different than last year. The Magic are a game ahead of last year’s pace, but will not need a crazed run to make the postseason. Orlando exits the All-Star Break with a three-game lead for the final playoff spot.

But the Magic will not be able to shake the fact that they have faced some stagnation. Even considering the injuries the team has faced, the team still imagined it would compete for home-court advantage or be in a position to make a real playoff series.

Instead, the Magic have seen a lot of their flaws exposed. Their offense simply struggles to create much movement or pace and the team’s shooting is lacking. That has begun to hurt the team’s defense as the team has had a strangely cold shooting and inconsistent season.

Undoubtedly the team has an eye on the future as it plans its next steps. They do not want to fight for playoff scraps forever.

The team as constructed can still gain something from this season. But only by playing their way in just like they did last year.

It is important to remember the Magic are still a very young team. D.J. Augustin is the oldest player at 32 years old. The next oldest player is James Ennis at 29 years old. It is an incredibly young team.

While it feels like the team is at a turning point — especially with Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier as the key players on the team — this is still a team learning how to win.

This is another reason why these next 27 games are important. There is a process of learning how to make the playoffs and manage the season that needs re-enforcing. Even failure in the bigger picture — like staying as the 7-seed or having a worse record — can be instructive to a young team.

Something needs to drive this team to get better since the need to prove the league wrong has died down some.

But more importantly, players like Markelle Fultz or Mohamed Bamba who have never been key players on a playoff team and even Aaron Gordon need to go through the process of preparation that goes into being in the playoffs. There is an intensity and pressure that comes with these close games that cannot be replicated. Experience is the only way to learn.

This is at the heart of the Magic’s philosophy for growing and developing their young players. They want them to feel and go through this pressure.

To play their way in, the Magic need to get back to .500. To finish 41-41 this season, Orlando will have to go 17-10 the rest of the way. That will be no easy task. But, the Magic were able to pull off the feat last year.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

And the schedule sets up for them to give it a chance. Orlando will play the third-easiest remaining schedule in the league. The Magic have 17 games (of the remaining 27) against teams with records worse than .500. They are currently 19-7 against teams with records worse than .500 this year.

At a .731 win percentage, the Magic could count on winning 12 of those 17 games. The question for this team has always been whether it can beat teams competing for something and win these meaningful games.

Getting back to 41 wins will be a tough ask. Even though the team pulled it off last year, the same desperate energy is not present.

A more realistic goal and necessary goal to achieve for the Orlando Magic would be to catch the Brooklyn Nets for seventh. With a two-game gap, the aforementioned favorable schedule and three remaining games against the Nets, that is very possible.

Having to climb from eighth to seventh would almost certainly qualify as playing their way into the playoffs.

Whatever the case, and however the Magic finish, they need to spend these final 27 games building momentum. Building momentum fro the playoffs and the offseason.

They need to get back to paying attention to the details that made last year’s run so captivating. It is this turn the Magic need to make to get the most out of the rest of their season.

The playoffs are a near certainty at this point if the team plays at the same rate they have played through 55 games. But that is not the level the team wants to be at.

Nothing may stop the changes that seem inevitable in the offseason. But Orlando can still play its way into the playoffs. And that will help spearhead the team into the offseason.

If Orlando can improve its playoff positioning after the All-Star Break, they will have been able to gain something form this season.

Next. Aaron Gordon will need new response to Dunk Contest loss. dark

To prove they are still a young team on the rise and with a future, they must.