Orlando Magic never wavered and have begun making playoff push

Evan Fournier's return has given the Orlando Magic a spark to stay in the playoff race. Mandatory Credit: Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports
Evan Fournier's return has given the Orlando Magic a spark to stay in the playoff race. Mandatory Credit: Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports /

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Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford often embodies the NBA cliche of staying level — never getting too high or too low. He often tells media, especially when the team is playing well, how quickly things can turn in the NBA.

A team that is riding high in one moment is one bad week away from crashing quickly.

With so many games, tides do change quickly in the NBA. The league is about building consistency and being able to repeat success every night on red-eye flights and back-to-backs and almost no practice time.

This season especially.

This Magic franchise especially has seen how quickly things can crash as promising starts in 2016 (19-13 and fourth in the East in January) and 2018 (8-4) before things fell apart quickly. Neither of those teams ever recovered from the swoons of the typical NBA season.

They got too low.

Nobody would blame the 2021 Magic for succumbing to that. They were already playing without a starter for the year thanks to Jonathan Isaac’s torn ACL in the bubble in August. They lost their starting point guard to another torn ACL eight games into the season and things only got worse from there.

Injuries are an easy excuse — and an understandable one — for the Magic struggling to even meet their basic goals. They played an entire West Coast road trip with only eight players available to them for the majority of each game.

But this team has not allowed itself to succumb to those thoughts. Even when it looked like the world was falling apart around them, losing 16 of 20 games in the aftermath of Markelle Fultz’s injury, the team still seemed willing to get to work and stay in the fight.

The Orlando Magic could have succumbed to their injuries and sunk to the bottom of the standings. But the team has found its resolve again and, finally healthy, are making a push to stay in the playoff picture.

Now that the team is moving past some of its injury troubles, getting Evan Fournier back from back spasms that have kept him mostly out since late December and Al-Farouq Aminu back from the knee injury that kept him off the court for more than a year, they are looking whole.

"“It sucks that guys have been out, especially for an extended period of time,” Nikola Vucevic said after Sunday’s win over the Detroit Pistons. “It is what it is. You have to move forward. You have to find ways to adjust and play. We have been able to do that all year long. We have to. Now that we’re getting guys back, we’re playing better and better. Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue to do that.”"

They are finally able to piece together something resembling the team they envisioned at the start of the year. And their work to keep things afloat to get to this point has kept them in the race.

As good or as bad as they seem

The Orlando Magic were never as bad as their record indicated. Or at least, they needed to prove that as statistically for a long time they appeared worse than their record.

Even now, the Magic are still 27th in the league with a -5.7 net rating. Orlando is no longer playing like the worst team in the league. But the team still has to play really well to climb its way out. Statistically, the Magic are still not as good as their record indicates.

That certainly suggests there is still a lot of work to do for the Magic to turn their season around. It will take more than a three-game win streak — albeit one with two wins over teams currently in playoff position in the New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors.

But the signs of the team turning things around are there beyond the team’s win streak. It is something that had occurred even as the team was struggling to find its base.

"“When we have gotten down, we haven’t started playing wild basketball,” Al-Farouq Aminu said after Sunday’s win over the Detroit Pistons. “We kept going through our plays and playing the right way, sharing the ball and working for each other. Eventually, shots start going in and defense gets tight on the other team and you work yourself back in. I like that we have been able to do that and we continue to do that. We’re just playing one way and trusting it.”"

The Magic, even during this improved stretch, are not the picture of the strongest team in the world.

Since the team’s West Coast road trip, the Magic are posting a +0.7 net rating, 13th in the league. A positive net rating certainly shows how much better the Magic are playing at this point. But that still is a team that is hovering around .500. That is ultimately not the goal, but certainly good enough to make the playoffs as a low-level team.

Especially defensively, where the Magic have suddenly found their footing and their identity yet again. They are giving up only 107.1 points per 100 possessions, the fourth-best mark in the league since Feb. 9.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

If Orlando has gained anything in the last two weeks, it is finding its defensive footing and identity that has defined the team for the last three years. The Magic are slowly climbing those rankings getting to league average for the year (currently 18th in the league overall).

"“We’ve really picked it up on that end, which for us, it has to be like that every night to have a chance,” Nikola Vucevic said after Sunday’s win. “Tonight we held the Pistons to 96 points, nowadays especially. If we can continue to improve on that end and stay consistent, we’re going to have a chance. I think we have enough offensively to score every night and find different ways to do it.”"

The Playoff Chase

The Orlando Magic always had faith the team would find this center again. Throughout the losing streak, the Magic were still clearly grinding and trying to get wins.

The ultimate carrot, of course, was how bad the Eastern Conference had been. While the Magic were losing, the East was not exactly running away from them.

Only five teams are better than .500 in the Eastern Conference. Despite all the losing, the Magic were still within striking distance of that final play-in spot. The team trails the Miami Heat by one-half game for the final spot in the play-in tournament and trails the Boston Celtics by 2.5 games for sixth.

It is hard not to look at that and believe the team could make a run. The Magic have often finished their seasons with strong finishing kicks.

That is in line with something Clifford says all the time: His goal is for the team to improve as the season goes on. He expects and teaches his team to improve continually so they play their best basketball later in the season.

Even as the team was losing and dealing with injuries, Clifford said the goal was simply to pick up wins where they could to get to this moment when they were finally healthy enough to play a full rotation. He just wanted to see the team progress, knowing it would be better equipped to put all the pieces together when they were healthy again.

And deeply embedded in the Magic’s psyche and culture is this willingness to fight and grind for wins. They were never going to hit the lows of those earlier teams.

"“I think [Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier] are showing great fight and great determination,” coach Steve Clifford said after Sunday’s game. “They understand this is a big stretch for us and these are important games. I think they all get a feel we are playing better. Our defense tonight was very good again. I think we are getting a better understanding of how we have to play to be more consistent.”"

With the playoffs still in reach, the Magic are making their push now. It is clearly not too late to have something to play for. It would have been too early — and too damaging — to give up on the season so soon. Even with all the adversity they were facing.

The Magic then likely feel they have gone through the worst, stayed true to the culture and mentality they built the last two years. They are still in a position to make something of this season even with everything they have lost to this point.

There will be difficult times ahead. The Magic are expected to have a very difficult second-half schedule (first drafts of that schedule are supposedly working around teams).

dark. Next. 3 trades to reset the Orlando Magic

But the team has shown the resolve to face that and at least give themselves a chance. For this year, at least, that is all the team could ask for. And they recognize all their goals are still within reach on the court.