Orlando Magic must protect the Amway Center to keep season hopes alive

The Orlando Magic put winning at home as one of their bigger goals for this season. It might well determine their season. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
The Orlando Magic put winning at home as one of their bigger goals for this season. It might well determine their season. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

Back in training camp, the Orlando Magic listed several goals they wanted to accomplish to have a successful season.

The first was to get off to a good start. The team did not want to start slowly and have to play catch up in February and March as they have the last two years. They wanted to start from ahead with the chance to climb up the standings when they hit their stride at that point of the season.

Orlando largely accomplished this goal with a 6-2 start. The shock of Markelle Fultz’s injury has not worn off completely. But it gave the Magic the cushion they wanted to reorganize themselves.

Still, the team has lost seven of its last eight games now to fall to 7-9. As the team nears the quarter mark of the season — Monday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets is game 18, the midway point of the first half of the season — they are in the middle of the early playoff race and on the outside looking in.

The Orlando Magic do not have much ground to make up — in 10th place and one-half game behind the New York Knicks for eighth and 1.5 games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks for sixth and seventh. But the strong start has already been spent. They are playing a bit from behind.

That leads to the second goal the Magic have. That will be the central task facing the Magic in the second quarter of the season.

After struggling to protect the Amway Center last year, the Orlando Magic made it a key goal to their success this season. With a home heavy second-quarter, winning at home will determine this season’s outcome.

Orlando wanted to better protect the Amway Center. It was something the team struggled with last year, going 18-17 officially at home last year after going 25-16 in 2019. This was a key difference between the celebration of the 2019 season — where the Magic scored upset wins over both NBA Finalists in the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors — and the frustration of the 2020 season.

So far, Orlando has gotten off to a slow start at home this year. The next stretch of games has the chance to change that narrative.

The Magic will play seven of their next eight games at the Amway Center and the comforts of home — something that is probably a bit underrated considering teams are limited in their activities while on the road this year because of the pandemic.

They will not leave Florida until they start a West Coast trip on Feb. 9 — the Orlando Magic plan to leave by bus the day of the game for Tampa to take on the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 31.

In other words, Orlando should be able to get plenty of practice time and have plenty of access to the AdventHealth Practice Facility to sharpen up in the next few weeks.

More than that, the Magic will play 14 of the next 20 games at the Amway Center. Almost the entire second quarter of the season is at home.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

When ESPN rated the Magic as having the easiest schedule on paper in the first half of the season, this is likely the reason why. The Magic needed to survive the road trip they just completed — a stretch that featured eight road games in their last nine outings with the Milwaukee Bucks as the lone appearance at the Amway Center — to get to this reward.

At 1-8 in their last nine games, it is hard to say they did. But the team’s strong start gave them a little bit of a cushion to land on.

With that gone, it makes this next stretch of games all the more important. If the Magic are going to make a third straight playoff bid, they need to accomplish this goal of winning at home and protecting the Amway Center.

Everyone is expecting a much more difficult road in the second half of the season. Failure to win in the second quarter of the season could very well doom the season.

The road of the season

That is perhaps a bit hyperbolic to say. But the next two weeks and certainly the next month leading into the team’s West Coast road trip could make the season. It is not unrealistic to say that these next few weeks and how well the team plays could determine what the Orlando Magic might make of the season.

So far, the Orlando Magic are 3-3 at home with a win over the Miami Heat (6-9) and two wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers (8-7). They have lost to the Philadelphia 76ers (12-5), Oklahoma City Thunder (6-8) and Milwaukee Bucks (9-6). It is not exactly a murderer’s row of wins or a grouping of unexpected or terrible losses.

After all, the Magic are 7-9 themselves. They have not gotten traction themselves. They are not losing to teams that are at least at this point clearly below them in the standings. Still, they need to pick up these wins against equal opponents — another reason why the loss to the Indiana Pacers on Friday was so gutting.

Friday’s game against the LA Clippers is the only game in the next nine outings that will feature an opponent with a record better than .500. If the Magic are once again feasting on teams with losing records to build their standing, they should be able to build up some wins.

Again, the Magic will face plenty of teams near them in the standings — starting Sunday and Monday against the Charlotte Hornets (6-9), moving on to the Sacramento Kings (6-10) and a pair of games next week against the Toronto Raptors (6-9) and Chicago Bulls (7-9).

As much as anything, the Magic will be hosting a lot of teams in the next two weeks who are fighting for the same spot in the standings as the Magic. They have a chance to climb above them in games they play. Orlando controls its own destiny the next several weeks on their home floor — with fans in the building, at that, something they claimed was an advantage to defeat the Miami Heat on opening night.

Like last season, the Magic are doing well against teams with records below .500 (5-3) and struggling against teams ahead of them in the standings (2-6).

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This remains a fair criticism of the team, but each win still counts the same.

Playing at home is supposed to be an area where teams can bank up wins against these quality opponents. The Magic certainly lost an opportunity at that to build on a 4-0 start when they lost to the 76ers on Dec. 31. They will get those chances in the coming weeks.

Strength of schedule

But it will not come in the next few weeks. At least not how the standings are constructed now.

According to Tankathon’s calculation of their remaining opponent strength of schedule, the Orlando Magic have the second-easiest schedule in the league through the first half of the season. The opportunity is undoubtedly there.

But it is also clear the Magic have missed some opportunities too. Orlando has played the 23rd-most difficult schedule in the league according to ESPN’s RPI rankings.

The shock of the Markelle Fultz injury has certainly hurt the team and kept them from playing to their fullest ability. They have had to reorganize on the fly and have lost some ground at an important part of the season.

Hovering over everything with the Magic is the uncertainty of the second-half schedule. It is safe to assume that it will look much more difficult and structured much differently than the way the Magic have had their first-half setup.

But all the Magic can focus on is the schedule ahead of them and the opportunity it presents.

Orlando’s season might well be determined now how the team builds itself up inside the Amway Center. By the time the Magic head out West on their February road trip, they should know whether they are capable of climbing the playoff ladder or whether they will be fighting for a playoff spot.

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By the time the Magic hit the midpoint of the season, they should know exactly where they stand. And whether they are capable of achieving their goals will largely be determined on the Amway Center’s parquet floor.