Orlando Magic minding the details for playoff push

The Orlando Magic have the playoffs squarely in their sights, but the focus is on themselves more than the teams chasing them. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic have the playoffs squarely in their sights, but the focus is on themselves more than the teams chasing them. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic aim to make the most of their final 27 games. So they are focusing on the details and ignoring external factors.

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford is not one to hide from the standings. He was caught in a practice video the team released telling his team exactly where they stand — three games up on the Washington Wizards for the final playoff spot.

That might be the extent of how much he mentions the playoff chase and what the team has to do. The media might take the rest of it from there.

They might break down the schedule — 17 of the final 27 games against teams with records worse than .500 — or look at where teams stand in the horse race — two games back of the Brooklyn Nets for seventh.

The media might ask what is the difference between trying to chase the final spot in the playoffs or hold onto the final spot and how the team needs to find the motivation to play with an urgency that has seemingly been missing all season long.

It is easy to get caught up in these narratives or tired storylines. But that is not what the league or players are focused on.

There is a big-picture focus for the team and an unending gaze toward the playoffs. Everyone sees that finish line and that accomplishment — as small as it might be in this watered-down Eastern Conference — on the horizon.

But their focus is on the details and on themselves, not anything external. To make the most of the final 27 games. Motivation does not come from the chase for the playoff spot, motivation comes from the intensity of the games and the urgency to prepare for the playoffs ahead.

"“We’ve got to look at it as if we’re not in it and we’ve got to play our way in,” Terrence Ross said after practice Thursday. “We’ve got to take every possession by possession and don’t give anything away. We need as many games as we can get.“We’re trying to play from ahead right now. Keep that mindset and kind of keep improving every game. That will help us a lot more than it did last year.”"

Clifford noted a three-game lead in the playoff race is really quite small in the end. It is “one bad week” in the NBA, as he put it.

The Magic should know this better than anyone else. After 55 games last year, the Orlando Magic were 3.5 games back of the final playoff spot (and the Detroit Pistons who would earn the 8-seed were also out of the playoff picture at that point).

There is still a lot of potential shuffling to go this year with nearly one-third of the season left.

Improving their playoff standing will not come from watching what other teams do (although, certainly, we in the media will do that). It will come down to what the Magic do and how they play.

That might make plenty of people uneasy. It has been an inconsistent season for the Magic, to say the least.

Injuries have played a role in creating inconsistent lineups. This Magic team was not built to sustain a lot of losses to key players. And the numbers show it.

Orlando’s offense has struggled all year — the team is 27th in the league with 105.5 points per 100 possessions. The defense has held steady in the top-10 — seventh in the league at 107.4 points per 100 possessions. But as Clifford said during Wednesday’s practice, the goal for the team needs to be to get that into the top five by the end of the year.

Orlando might need that kind of a defensive effort to turn things around and make a push for .500. But the key is not anything major. It is about the little details.

"“I think it’s a lot of more paying attention to detail,” Nikola Vucevic said after practice Thursday. “Defensively making the extra effort, making sure we know the coverages and execute the game plan. It’s small things. Offensively, it’s setting better screens, creating better views for other people, running the plays better.It’s nothing that we can’t do. It’s little things that we have to be very consistent with. Do it every night and every play. That’s the only way you can be very good in this league. Hopefully this last stretch and going into the playoffs, we have to be very good at that.”"

Scratching out extra points and extra possessions without giving anything away is really the key for the Magic to turn around.

Several Orlando players, echoing the team’s coach, say they do not have to re-invent themselves. They just have to do the things they are doing more precisely and more attentively.

For the Magic, it really is all about the details. What they accomplished last year or even where they are at this year is not relevant to the rest of the season.

Only how they choose to advance forward.

"“You know that you can do it,” Nikola Vucevic said after practice Thursday. “It was last year, it was different circumstances. You can’t really look at it that way. For us, you have to understand that based on what we did so far this year is take another step forward, be better than we were and be more consistent.”"

It is hard not to think about last year’s run at this point in the season. The Magic are a game ahead of last year’s pace and face a similarly light schedule to last year (at least on paper). The elements to make a run and finish the season strong are present.

But to do so will take some more intense focus. As everyone with the team will tell you, the dynamic is different this year. While it may not mean much, the Magic are not chasing the final playoff spot. That chip on their shoulder from last year to prove everyone wrong and make the playoffs is gone.

The team, no matter what it wants to admit to itself, has to find some added motivation and spark to get back to that level. It will be a valuable experience for the team moving forward just as last year helped them reach this point this year despite a lot of struggles.

Vucevic said this year, the team has something to lose. Last year, when they were chasing, they played free and with urgency. This year, that push is not the same.

It is still valuable nonetheless.

"“I think the whole thing is a learning experience,” Clifford said after practice Thursday. “I think last year was invaluable for the team we have this year. The majority of our guys haven’t had a lot of experiences playing on teams that have competed for playoff spots. I think the whole thing is valuable.”"

The season might ultimately go down as a disappointment even if the Magic finish seventh and play their way to a higher seed. There is still something to gain. These next 27 games will be a test of their resolve and their attention to detail.

This is the time of year playoff teams start to focus and sharpen their attention. Vucevic said the team has to approach games seriously and give the rest of the season their full attention. They have to be more consistent on both ends.

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From there, the Magic can let the chips fall where they may. But it is on them to make that improvement.