The Orlando Magic know exactly where they stand.
Coach Jamahl Mosley and team management may still be hesitant to talk about it, but the players have been open about their desire to make the postseason. They know how close they are in the standings and how much work they need to put in to reach their goal.
What they might lack right now is the experience to actually pull these games out. That is what fed the frustration following their loss to the Miami Heat on Saturday. The frustration came from knowing they were so close and yet still feeling powerless to stop the Heat’s comeback and their late-game mastery.
That was an experienced team knowing how to stick with and put away an inexperienced one. A team that knows how to win and a team that is learning how to win.
So it was on to the next test. On to the next opportunity to prove the lessons they have learned and that they are indeed a team capable of making this postseason push. A team that can dig down and find stops and find shots even in the worst of circumstances.
There is still a long way to go. But a game like Monday’s 100-91 victory over the Chicago Bulls at the United Center is more proof the Orlando Magic are indeed in the race. They are indeed a playoff-capable team and capable of the growth that always seemed promised.
The Orlando Magic scored a critical game for their budding postseason hopes, beating the Chicago Bulls behind late-game poise and a strong and growing defense.
As the team closes in on the All-Star Break and the final quarter of the season, the Magic are in the postseason chase. They know it and now everyone else should know it.
"“I think we are just playing for something,” Franz Wagner said after Monday’s win. “We are not far out from playing in the Play-In Game. Every game matters and that’s how we have to approach every game.”"
Maybe this kind of a win is not the loud pronouncement that the team is here to compete and win in a meaningful way.
But the response they made to Saturday’s loss by still struggling, but digging in deeper defensively and then holding off the Bulls’ last charge, answering with big shots from Markelle Fultz and a pull-up jumper from Paolo Banchero to put the game firmly out of reach, says a lot.
It is getting increasingly harder to ignore what the Magic are doing.
Giving up 91 points is impressive on its own in a game. The team’s 92.9 defensive rating was the third-best of the season, further showing how good the team’s defensive effort was. The Bulls shot 40.7-percent from the floor and 3 for 21 from deep, as coach Billy Donovan essentially had his team abandon the 3-point shot because they were missing so many.
Adding to the impressive defensive performance was how imperfectly the Magic played, committing 18 turnovers for 16 points and giving up 17 fast-break points. Chicago had 10 offensive rebounds for 12 points.
Orlando was strong defensively and contested shots, getting deflections and its own share of turnovers. But the Magic left the door open.
As much as these mistakes did that, Orlando’s defense slammed that door shut. It has been doing that a lot more of late.
"“Growth, I think that is part of it,” Mosley said after Monday’s win. “The learning from last game, being able to bounce back from that situation. Being up and not letting go of it. Understanding how we have to execute down the stretch offensively and defensively.”"
The Magic have a defensive rating of 113.1 points per 100 possessions since returning from their January West Coast trip (the last 13 games). That defensive rating is 10th in the league in that time. The Magic have suddenly jumped to 16th in the league in defensive rating for the entire season at 113.7 points per 100 possessions.
This is what the Magic imagined with their extreme length and versatility. They challenge, contest and deflect shots. But increasingly they are rotating and helped like an expert team, closing down driving lanes and smothering opponents.
This has become a far more consistent way for this team to win. And it helps lift an offense that can go through its droughts.
"“I think we still have a lot more room for improvement,” Wagner said after Monday’s game. “Just looking at our roster, a lot of guys are tall and can move. I think our communication is going to get better as people get more used to playing together. I think that part can still improve. Obviously, our goal is to be a great defensive team.”"
Orlando’s offense still gets stuck at times. The team needed to rely on its defense to hold it over and maintain a lead and generate some energy. The Magic made only 8 of 27 shots from beyond the arc.
It always felt like Orlando was in control. But with Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan percolating on the other side, that was never a sure thingk.
But unlike in previous close losses, the Magic got big shots when they needed them.
Fultz was moving the ball with speed up and down the court and finding teammates in tight spaces. He finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
Wagner seemingly broke out from a cold snap to hit big shots down the stretch and work his way into the paint. He had 18 points too on 7-for-8 shooting. Four turnovers were really his only blemish
And then there was Banchero. He dropped 22 points on 8-for-18 shooting. While he still struggled to hit from the outside, he got to the basket with consistency and then hit the big shot that mattered, draining a jumper over Nikola Vucevic with about a minute to play to give Orlando its nine-point advantage.
These are all positive steps for this young team and positive moments. But more importantly, they came because the team played with defensive intensity and focus. They were hardly perfect, but the Magic were good enough. They were committed enough to what they will have to do to win games.
"“We’re focused on us,” Markelle Fultz said after Monday’s win. “We know it is going to be us at the end of the day that’s going to hurt us or make us go. Sticking to our game plan, playing the way we want to play on the defensive end, sharing the ball and having everyone playing their game, that’s when we are at our best.”"
Now Orlando’s maturity is translating into something more tangible. A nightly look at the standings and an evaluation of what the team will have to do to achieve a postseason goal.
Monday’s game in Chicago against the Bulls was big because of the standings implications. The Chicago Bulls, along with Tuesday’s opponent in the Toronto Raptors, sit in the spot the Orlando Magic are trying to catch — that coveted last Play-In Tournament spot. Orlando has three games to make up on those teams.
The Magic are going to spend the remainder of this season feeling the pressure of this tight margin to make up. They are going to spend the rest of this season learning to play with the need to win and all the ups and downs that come with it.
"“You challenge them with that knowing the circumstances and they have accepted the challenge,” Mosley said after Monday’s win. “They don’t worry about the pressure of it because they have been prepared to do these things. And so just being more of themselves is what we’ve asked them to do. Stepping in and stepping up.”"
The fact the Magic are a potential play-in team is not something anyone can hide from. And that changes everything about this season.
It is impossible to deny now what this team is capable of and what that means for the rest of the season.