Orlando Magic get another chance to measure up

Evan Fournier viewed two games against the Indiana Pacers as early tests for the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Evan Fournier viewed two games against the Indiana Pacers as early tests for the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic struggled to defeat the teams they felt equal to in the standings. The Magic will now get a chance to measure up before the Playoffs.

Back in November, the Orlando Magic were struggling out of the gates at 3-6. They had let some solid opportunities slip through their fingers against quality opponents. It was not the start they wanted.

After blowing out a young Memphis Grizzlies team to open a five-game homestand, the Orlando Magic were eyeing the Indiana Pacers.

This homestand was critical for them to pick up momentum and find their rhythm early in the season. They knew this would help determine a lot of where their season would go.

Evan Fournier said at a practice leading into that game the Pacers were a team they could model themselves after. The Pacers were, in essence, in the place the Magic wanted to be. If Orlando wanted to plant a flag among the perennial Eastern Conference playoff teams with the chance to make noise, they would need to beat those teams.

That game that Sunday night did not go as the Magic hoped.

Indiana won 109-102. The Magic were outscored 58-42 in the second half. For the first time all season, the Magic’s defense really let them down.

Indiana used a parade of mid-range jumpers, abusing Orlando’s pick and roll defense and drop coverages. Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. McConnell especially seemed to burn the Magic. Coach Steve Clifford pulled the call-out-his-team-to-the-press-and-then-abruptly-end-his-press-conference card after the game.

The Magic did not measure up.

They faced a similar fate with a fourth-quarter collapse against the Pacers a few weeks later in their first full game without Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon after their ankle injuries in mid-November.

These were the first signs the Magic were not going to make the leap into the middle tier of the Eastern Conference playoff standings. They were going to be resigned to those lower seeds.

The Magic do not have a chance to climb higher than seventh now that the season has restarted. But the Orlando Magic still see games against the likes of the Indiana Pacers (41-26, 5th in the East), Toronto Raptors (48-18, 2nd in the East), Philadelphia 76ers (40-27, 6th in the East) and Boston Celtics (44-22, 3rd in the East) as their measuring stick.

This is how they will know how ready they are for the Playoffs.

"“Playing against playoff teams is going to be a good challenge for us,” Fournier said after practice Monday. “It’s going to be interesting because it is going to be a different kind of intensity and focus. That’s exactly what we need. We came here for big games and you want to have fun. We haven’t played meaningful games in a while. Playing against good teams is going to be fun.”"

Taking care of business

The Orlando Magic have taken care of business in their first two games inside the campus.

The Orlando Magic defeated the Brooklyn Nets 128-118 and the Sacramento Kings 132-116 in blowout fashion. The Magic led by 30 points in each game and coasted through the fourth quarter. Their starters did not even top 25 minutes in either game.

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Orlando has had it easy both because the opponents the team faced were comparatively weak to the other teams in the campus but also because the team has played exceptionally well. The Magic dominated each game in different ways.

In the incredibly small sample size of two games, the Magic have the top net rating in the league at +11.9 points per 100 possessions. That includes fourth quarters where Clifford has essentially admitted the team has played poorly.

Orlando has been able to coast through these early games. It was necessary to take care of business in those games. But the real challenge lies in these next four games.

The main goal

The Orlando Magic’s main goal inside the campus was to finish seventh. But the overarching goal for the season still remained too — to make the playoffs and be more competitive.

The Orlando Magic may not climb to sixth and may face a still daunting series — like with the Toronto Raptors, Wednesday’s seeding round opponent — but they can still achieve that goal.

"“The goal from day one has been to be in the playoffs and be playing in a manner where we can be a factor,” Clifford said after practice Monday. “My message to the guys ever since we got back is we had the majority of the year where we were a top-10 defense and then we had a good stretch of games where we were top five in offense. We have proven we can play well at both ends of the floor and now we have to be able to do that at the same time so we are more balanced and we have to do it consistently.”"

The Magic have struggled to get all those pieces together throughout the season.

While the fourth quarters have been largely rote and poor statistically for the Magic, they have put up solid stats through three quarters that suggest they are finding some of that balance.

In Friday’s win over the Nets, the Magic posted a 146.1 offensive rating and 107.9 defensive rating through three quarters. The offensive number is astronomical while the defensive number is solid — a bit better than the Magic’s season average.

Indiana Pacers
Indiana Pacers /

Indiana Pacers

In Sunday’s win, Orlando was even better. The team scored 141.3 points per 100 possessions while giving up 98.7 points per 100 possessions. Those are really beyond elite numbers. it was a thorough drubbing.

The trick, of course, is to do that consistently. And the Pacers — with T.J. Warren dropping 53 points on Saturday and following it with 32 on Monday and Myles Turner as a defensive presence in the paint — are not the Kings or the Nets.

Orlando is rightfully focusing on one game at a time. But this game and the three that follow will give the team a better sense of just what it can do in the Playoffs — whether they will bow out quickly or potentially put up a fight.

The team is in an incredible rhythm and played with urgency and focus in their first two games. But this is the proving ground.

"“In order for us to do what we want to do which is to have playoff success, we’re going to have to be playing better by the eighth game than we are right now,” Clifford said after Monday’s practice. “The best way to do that is to play the best teams.”"

Orlando is just 5-26 against teams with records better than .500. That is the fewest wins against winning teams among teams in the Disney campus. The Magic made their living taking care of business against teams like the Nets and the Kings.

It is teams like the Pacers the Magic need to beat.

Orlando’s two wins in Indiana in March last year were critical victories in the team’s playoff run. Winning at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse twice, no less, gave the team a huge emotional lift and the belief they could beat anybody.

This campus is a second chance at the season. It is a chance for the Magic to make good on things it struggled with during the season.

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They got off to the hot start they did not after training camp in September last year. Now they have a chance to measure up against the team they want to be and show they may still deserve consideration higher up the standings.