Franz Wagner has been in pressure games before.
He was a member of a Michigan team that went to the Elite Eight of the 2021 NCAA tournament. He was a key figure in Germany’s bronze medal at EuroBasket last summer.
Like so many other players on the Orlando Magic, he is not a stranger to pressure-packed games or elimination games. Everyone has been through these moments at some level.
Still, the NBA Playoff chase is different. With 23 games remaining — nearly a whole college season — and four games to make up in the postseason chase, the Magic are about to experience something that very few of the players on the roster (really just Gary Harris at this point) have gone through.
The grind of an NBA season — it is a marathon, not a sprint, or at least in former coach Steve Clifford’s estimation it is a sprint the whole way through — gets into its full tilt now that the final quarter of the season is ahead and the All-Star Break is behind them.
This is the experience the Magic have been hoping to give to their young team. The test and crucible every young player has to learn. And the only way to learn it is through experience.
The young Orlando Magic team have ground to make up in the postseason chase. But they are ready to get their experience of pressure-packed games now.
The Magic are going into the battle of a postseason chase knowing they have an uphill climb ahead and knowing they are going to have to learn to deal with the pressure that comes with every game mattering all the way to the end of the season.
Welcome to the postseason chase. And the pressure only grows from here.
"“I think everybody has to have that mindset now if we’re going to make this jump and make a run at it,” Wagner said after practice Wednesday. “We talked about it a lot. Our focus has to be at a higher level than to start the year especially. You draw on all the experience to start the year. Coach says to be more of you and don’t be anyone else. That’s a good way to look at it.”"
A lot of players are going to have to step up. The team will need to continue the run of play that has the Magic bouncing back from a 5-20 start to go 19-15 in their last 34 games. That is nearly half of a season playing at a playoff-caliber level.
It is also a big hole the team has been trying to dig itself out of.
That has only increased the pressure and urgency to play well to close this season out. Now that the postseason goal is out in the open.
The Orlando Magic (24-35) are four games behind the Toronto Raptors (28-31) for the final Play-In spot. The Raptors are on pace to win 39 games this season, meaning the Magic would reasonably have to go 15-8 to make the Play-In.
That is no guarantee even that mark would do the trick. That should give a glimpse though to the tall task ahead. But for the Magic, they understand the experience these goals and this chase will leave for this young team.
"“For me, I just know that’s when I’m at my best,” Paolo Banchero said after practice Wednesday. “At Duke when it was on the line, that was when I played my best basketball. That was when I was the most locked in and playing the best basketball. Definitely, I hope to be able to do that this last stretch. Especially those last couple when it means something. I’m looking forward to play with something on the line.“For the team, it’s a great experience for all of us. Most of the guys who have played in meaningful games in college or wherever else, to be able to do that in this league is going to be a great experience and a great learning experience for us. I’m really excited.”"
Coach Jamahl Mosley is already trying to prepare his team for the pressure they will face and the level of attention to detail they will need to be successful in this pressure cooker.
He spent part of the team’s film session during practices Tuesday and Wednesday showing the team clips of themselves late in games that they have struggled to finish — the recent playoff-like atmospheres they faced in losses to the New York Knicks and Miami Heat at the Amway Center.
They also watched clips of previous playoff games — Mosley mentioned specifically the 2019 quadruple overtime game between the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets and last year’s Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics — to get a sense of what playoff intensity feels like and how critical singular plays can be in determining advancing or staying home.
The point is indeed how critical attention to detail needs to be in order to win at a Playoff level. The Magic have felt they have leveled up, but the next level to get to is understanding the attention to detail on both ends it takes to win consistently, especially in these high-pressure situations.
That is one of the big areas Orlando has to improve upon.
The Magic’s mark in back-to-backs is well noted — they are 1-10 on the second night of back-to-backs. Fortunately, Orlando has only two back-to-backs remaining.
They are also 12-19 in games within five points in the final five minutes. That 38.7 percent win percentage is the fifth-worst in the league. And that is obviously an area where games could flip one way or the other.
This is an area where the team still has to show its poise and growth if they are going to make this kind of a run.
"“That’s the beautiful part about growth in a young team,” Mosley said after practice Wednesday. “The only way you can get it is to go through it. It’s not going to be perfect. You know with a young team, they are going to have to experience the ups and the downs and the wins and the losses in those close, pressure games. We have games throughout the year we can go back to and look at and see where we executed well and how we can improve.”"
The Magic will need to get all the pieces together. But the big picture is always in mind for this young team. The experience gained will be valuable as the team moves into the offseason and looks for another year of growth next year.
While the players are determined to make the postseason this year, Mosley said whether the team makes it or not this will be something the team can use to grow and improve beyond this year.
The Magic have already made a ton of progress to reach 24 wins already. Even finishing .500 the rest of the season would put the game at 35 or 36 wins. That is a significant improvement from 22 wins last year.
But there is still a lot of growth to come. And that is what the rest of this season represents.
"“It’s a great group that they do believe,” Mosley said after practice Wednesday. “That’s what we want them to understand and we want everyone to understand. This is a group that believes in one another. They believe in what we’re doing. You can only control what we can control. And that’s how we play. You can’t control what other teams are doing in the standings. But we can take it one game at a time, one practice at a time and go from there.”"
That is all the Magic can do. They cannot worry so much about what other teams are doing. They can only worry about the games in front of them and taking care of their work to make up ground.
That starts Thursday against the Detroit Pistons at the Amway Center.
But the chase is on. Everyone is feeling and welcoming the pressure of the postseason chase. They are ready to get through this experience and continue to grow.