Orlando Magic are back in the playoffs, but they didn’t play their way in

The Orlando Magic are back in the playoffs, but their frustration this season has been evident. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic are back in the playoffs, but their frustration this season has been evident. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic are back in the playoffs for the second straight year. Unlike last year, disappointment reigns and the team feels unfulfilled.

The Orlando Magic celebrated their first playoff appearance in seven years with a raucous celebration.

They had just dusted off a comeback victory over the Boston Celtics in the penultimate game of the season. The team overcame the pressure of having to scramble to make the playoffs. They overcame the pressure of uncertainty from teams behind them.

The prospect of having a do-or-die game against the Charlotte Hornets in the final game of the season lingered over everyone’s head. The team certainly wanted to avoid that. It certainly wanted to take care of its business.

They walked off the floor in Boston with that feeling of accomplishment. They completed their playoff journey. They had gone 22-9 to scramble toward the postseason.

But more importantly, they accomplished the biggest goal coach Steve Clifford set out for them.

They played their way in. Nobody helped them, they earned their playoff spot.

This young team got to do something few teams get to do. They clinched their first playoff spot on the floor. It was their accomplishment — something the team celebrated that evening all the way off the floor, into the locker room and into the night in Boston.

The playoff appearance changed everything about the franchise and the organization. The team had a new standard and a new realization of what it could do.

The playoffs were no longer a dream. They were the expectation. The condition necessary for a season’s success, although it is not sufficient for such.

The feeling as the Magic clinched a second straight playoff berth was quite different.

There was no celebration on the court. No feeling of accomplishment. Nothing to have won.

This playoff berth was given to them, in a way.

They lost to the Philadelphia 76ers 108-101 and watched the New Orleans Pelicans defeat the Washington Wizards to secure their spot in the postseason. Orlando will play on and get the postseason experience they covet.

The necessary but not sufficient goal

In that sense, the season has been a success.

The Orlando Magic proved last year’s playoff run was not a fluke. By making the playoffs yet again, the Magic have become a consistent winning outfit, even at this low level.

This is a big accomplishment and players understand what a step this is, as small as it might be.

"“It means a lot,” D.J. Augustin said on the prospect of clinching after Friday’s loss to the 76ers. “It hasn’t been done in about eight years. It’s a big thing for us, for the franchise and for the fans. It’s very important to us. 8, 7, 6, whatever, as long as we are in, anything can happen. It doesn’t matter who we play, we just want to get in, play well and play our game and anything can happen.”"

But that has not been the goal for the season. That is not what the team ultimately wanted to be.

The goal for the team at the beginning of the season was to take the next step as a franchise. They wanted to compete for home-court advantage and be in a position to have a real chance to win.

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As the season played out and injuries hit the team, expectations of the team’s ceiling changed.

They entered the campus with the goal of avoiding the play-in series and playing in a manner that would suggest they could make noise in the playoffs when they get there — just as they did the year before when they stole Game 1 from the eventual-champion Toronto Raptors.

They at least accomplished the goal of avoiding a play-in series. Although some of that has to do with the depleted Washington Wizards team they brought to Disney.

Yes, Orlando likely would have finished seventh had the season continued as planned. The Magic were playing their best basketball just as the season went on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is hard to take too much of what we see inside the campus as gospel especially at this early stage.

Yet, the Magic have had much of the same results from the regular season. They trounced the teams with a record worse than .500 and struggled against the teams with records better than .500.

Orlando looks to be that particular team. The team is who it is.

Not peaking at the right time

But what has been discouraging has been the Orlando Magic’s lack of fluidity and purpose against these teams.

The Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors both blitzed the team, rocking their confidence. The undermanned Orlando Magic looked better against the Philadelphia 76ers, but still did not have enough to get to the finish line.

The weaknesses that were always apparent about this team — its poor shooting and lack of strong individual defenders — have become more apparent as the focus narrows and matchups become more important.

The Magic were supposed to rely on their defense as a backstop. But even that has faltered. The team has looked purposeless in the games this week and unable to reel back who they are.

In other words, it is looking more and more like this is a team not built for playoff success. This is looking like a team that has reached something of its similar — especially now with the injury to Jonathan Isaac likely keeping him out for the 2021 season.

Orlando made the playoffs this year. The team deserved it. It is good enough to be in the field. But it is looking increasingly clear they are not good enough to make the noise they want.

The road to improvement

Coach Steve Clifford has done incredible work getting this team to this level. He has done an incredible job injecting belief — and still believing — in what this team could do.

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The disappointment fans are feeling — and to some extent, Clifford has publicly admitted — is a sign of how much things have changed inside the halls of the Amway Center. Everyone believes this team can and should achieve more.

To be sure, this season should be characterized as a disappointment, although not a failure.

Orlando has accomplished something it needed to accomplish. And if the team brings the group back mostly intact next year (a very real possibility considering the cap realities this offseason), they will be expected to make the playoffs again.

Nothing else will be accepted.

That should be the goal from this point moving forward with the talent on the roster. A second straight playoff berth has accomplished that. The team and its fans should expect a third — even if it is once again a low-level seed, although that should satisfy no one.

The Magic should want to push their way forward.

But the Magic did not play their way in this year. They did not peak at the right time and push their way into the field. They earned their spot with consistent play throughout the season. But they did not go out and take it.

The teams behind them fell off. And that realization has made this accomplishment a little bittersweet.

Still something to fight for

There is still something to play for, however.

The Orlando Magic are 1.5 games back of the Brooklyn Nets for seventh with three games to play. The two teams play each other in a must-win for both teams game on Tuesday. The Brooklyn Nets will play the LA Clippers, Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers to close the season. The Clippers are opting to rest Kawhi Leonard on Saturday, making it safe to assume he plays Sunday.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic play the Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets and New Orleans Pelicans. Their schedule is much more manageable. But the margin for error is much smaller — the Nets’ magic number to clinch the seven seed is any combination of two Nets wins or two Magic losses.

While there is still something to play for, the Magic are going to keep fighting and trying to play their way into something.

"“It’s still doable, so we’re going to fight for it while we can,” Nikola Vucevic said after Friday’s loss. “When we look at everything we went through this season with all the injuries and everything, to get in again would be a huge success for us for two years in a row after a long time for the franchise. We would like to get to seven. It’s not going to be easy. But we’re going to fight until the end, which we have done all year long.”"

That is all the team can do with its final three games. It likely will not change many of the big-picture questions they face this offseason. It will not change the overall feeling of this season’s disappointment and trying to figure out how to move this team forward.

That clearly did not happen this season. And in the end, Orlando did not get its celebratory playoff moment.

Next. Orlando Magic campus checkpoint: Pace is king. dark

This year, the Magic did not play their way in.