Orlando Magic cannot underestimate the schedule ahead of them

The Orlando Magic face a depleted Brooklyn Nets team to start the seeding round. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic face a depleted Brooklyn Nets team to start the seeding round. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic start their seeding round with a big game against the depleted Brooklyn Nets. They have to be ready to play and cannot underestimate them.

The last time the Orlando Magic played a game that counted, they were hopping on a plane coming home from a 3-1 road trip. They had erased a 16-point deficit and held off the Memphis Grizzlies for a big victory.

It felt like at long last, they could take a breath.

They had survived injuries and a brutal December and January schedule to get to a home-heavy and relatively (on paper) easy schedule. It was exactly what the team was waiting for all year.

The Magic were all brimming with confidence. Even during the hiatus, the usually circumspect Steve Clifford was pointing to this relatively easier schedule as a sign the Magic were turning a corner. He expected the team to make its run.

That is all thrown out the window. A day after that win in Memphis, the season would go on hiatus as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the nation (and still does today).

Four months later, all that momentum is gone. That favorable schedule is virtually gone with only the 22 best teams remaining in the NBA campus.

And now comes an uncertain sprint to the finish. Uncertain because nobody knows how any team will react to meaningful games after the disruption to training and the season.

The only thing Clifford seems to know is the same thing he always believed during the regular season: What something looks like on paper is never how it goes in the NBA.

Not unless a team is prepared and focused. Some things about the NBA do not change even in these extraordinary circumstances.

"“Our guys understand in this league, there are times when you play where you say if we played them in a series, we’d be in good shape,” coach Steve Clifford said after practice Thursday. “To play a team in this league one time, because they guys are so talented, anyone can play well on a given night and win. It’s just the like the other things, we have to be locked into the right things, do a good job preparing and then you have to play well.”"

Focus will be critical for the Magic right off the bat. And the Magic know they cannot take this Nets team lightly if they want to get out on the right foot.

The big start

Orlando has known since the schedule came up that Friday’s opening game to the seeding round might well be the most important. A date with the Brooklyn Nets, whom the Orlando Magic trail by one-half game for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.

On paper, this looks like a game the Magic should win. It might be easy to get lulled into a false sense of security or overconfidence.

The Nets were hit with a virus outbreak of their own and have several players injured who did not make the trip to Disney.

In addition Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant (both previously injured), the Nets are without Spencer Dinwiddie, Wilson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan from their lineup. They also lost the recently signed Michael Beasley to a positive COVID-19 test before he arrived in Orlando.

They signed veteran guard Jamal Crawford to help add some scoring punch. And he did not play in any of the team’s scrimmages.

The scoring load was then left to Caris LeVert and some of their games became a bit rough to watch. This is not the same Nets team from the regular season four months ago.

"“It’s big because, us as a whole, we understand the significance of winning all eight games,” Gary Clark said after practice Thursday. “Being that we have them twice, it’s great preparation to see how much we are locked in from the first one to the last one and taking that push to go to the playoffs.”"

The Magic will be dealing with their own uncertainty.

Steve Clifford said both Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz participated in the entire practice Thursday. Clifford said all indications are that both will play in the opening game Friday. But their availability and how much they can play will be dependent on how they feel and the recommendations of the medical staff.

The Magic are still taking it day-by-day with every player on the roster, at least officially.

Aaron Gordon practiced Thursday too after dealing with muscle soreness that kept him out of Monday’s scrimmage against the Denver Nuggets.

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Steve Clifford added Wesley Iwundu was symptom-free after his nasty fall in Saturday’s scrimmage. But he said it was unlikely Iwundu would be able to get through the concussion protocols in time for Friday’s game.

The uncertain start

That is not the only uncertainty surrounding the team. There is still so much uncertainty surrounding how the Magic will actually play when the season resumes.

After so much time off, it is impossible to pick up right where they left off. Those first games, like the first game of every season, could see some random results.

The Orlando Magic cannot afford to start on the wrong foot — the team plays two “winnable” games against under-.500 teams in the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings right off the bat before taking on all Eastern Conference playoff teams before the final two games against the Brooklyn Nets and New Orleans Pelicans.

Orlando has won 25 of its 30 games against teams with records worse than .500. These four games make up half of their eight-game schedule.

The team knows this and knows it has to treat every game with the respect and importance it deserves. Especially as they try to gain momentum at the start.

"“We’re going to just focus on each game one at a time,” James Ennis said after practice Thursday. “Our mindset going into the game is to try to get better as a unit. We have high hopes for us. We’re going to just play hard. Whatever happens happens. We aren’t going to take our foot off the gas. We’re going to keep pushing it.”"

The Magic know they will have to play solid defense to get there. It has to be the team’s calling card.

That is where they struggled most heading into the hiatus. And their defense during the scrimmages certainly could tighten up.

The goal remains the same

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Steve Clifford said the goal is the same as if the season had ended regularly.

The Orlando Magic want to enter the Playoffs playing their best basketball and playing a way they can sustain into the Playoffs. That is what they did last year when they were streaking into the postseason, carrying one of the top offenses and defenses in the league heading into the end of the regular season.

Orlando is trying to copy that feeling once again.

"“I think we’re in a good place,” Clifford said after practice Thursday. “I like the way they have worked down here. The difficult thing is last year with eight games left, we were playing at a high level. We had momentum and a ton of confidence. like every other team here, we’re starting from scratch that way.“One positive is with this group this year, we’ve had stretches where we’ve been terrific on offense. And for the majority of the year, we’ve been really good on defense. They know it’s in us to play well on both ends of the floor.”"

To get that out of themselves again, they will need to be sharp and focused right from the start.

Next. Jonathan Isaac's return gives Orlando Magic a boost. dark

There is no underestimating any of their opponents on the way to the Playoffs. And there is no room for extreme dips in that play.