They can smell and feel how close they are to a breakthrough that produces tangible results. The Play-In Tournament and the 10th seed is not a lofty goal. But it is a big one for a young team that has never experienced the postseason — let alone a postseason chase after the All-Star Break.
The Magic know this path will not be easy. They know that it will take some serious work to get into the playoffs and make up the ground they have left.
The team said it focused its time coming out of the All-Star Break on paying attention to detail and understanding how little things and little efforts can flip and turn games with these incredibly tight margins.
There is no area where attention to detail matters more than in the kind of games the Magic are starting their post-All-Star-Break schedule with. Because these are the exact games the Magic have struggled with.
The Orlando Magic are eager to make a push for the Play-In as their season sprints to the finish. To do that, the Magic need to improve in one key area: Beating sub-.500 teams more consistently.
Do not look past Thursday’s game against the Detroit Pistons or Saturday’s game against the Indiana Pacers. These are the kinds of games the Magic need to win to make good on this postseason chase. And the kinds of games the team has struggled with consistently all year.
If Orlando is going to make a postseason push, it starts with setting a tone from the start.
"“Just going into the second half of the season trying to make this playoff push, it kind of sets the tone for us and gives us that swagger that we need going up against those other teams we have to essentially have to beat to make it into those playoffs,” Wendell Carter said after shootaround Thursday. “I think this is an important game for us as every game will be after this one.”"
If there is a perception the Magic play their best against teams with records better than .500 and struggle against teams with records worse than .500, there is at least some truth to it.
Orlando is 12-18 in games against teams with records better than .500. And the team is 12-17 in games against teams with records worse than .500.
With the Magic still having the fifth-worst record in the league, it is not so surprising to see the team struggle like this. This is how you build a deep hole.
As a point of comparison, the 6th-seeded New York Knicks are a similar 12-16 against teams with records better than .500. But they have a dominant 21-11 record against teams worse than .500. Similarly, the 5th-seeded Brooklyn Nets are 11-16 against teams with records better than .500 but 23-8 against teams with records worse than .500.
This is the gap the Magic are missing. The focus to beat the teams they should (not that there are many teams currently below them in the standings). But these are the games postseason teams have to win and dominate.
"“I think every game is important for us now,” Franz Wagner said after practice Wednesday. “That should mean we come in focused for every game. Not just for the big games against big players or against good teams. We need every win that we can get.”"
Carter said the team is aware of this discrepancy and this record. He said the team has to do a better job of having respect for every team and bringing the same approach. They have to “do a better job locking and playing the same way no matter who is on the other side,” as Carter put it.
This is always what a young team needs to work on.
The Magic will have their opportunities to make up this ground. The Magic have a perfect .500 strength of schedule remaining combining their opponents’ win percentage for the rest of the season. That will be the 14th easiest remaining schedule by that metric.
The Orlando Magic have two games against the Detroit Pistons remaining (both at home including Thursday’s game), one against the Indiana Pacers (coming Saturday with a chance not only to tie the season series but potentially pass the Pacers in the standings) and one more against the Charlotte Hornets (next Friday) and San Antonio Spurs.
Those games will all come fairly early in the Magic’s remaining schedule and are must-wins if the Magic are going to make up ground in the standings. The Orlando Magic have already dropped games to the Houston Rockets, Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons (twice).
There are no getting those games back. But the team has improved in this regard too.
Taking out the Magic’s 5-20 start, which included losses to the Rockets, Pistons and Hornets, the Magic are 10-8 against teams with records that are currently worse than .500. That may not be the dominant mark needed to make the postseason outright but it is a marked improvement and the team is clearly making up some ground by beating struggling teams.
It shows how much this team has improved. And that is where the team is focused — not on the numbers, but on what they can do to take steps forward. At the end of the day, the Magic can only control themselves.
"“We need to prove everything ourselves,” Wagner said after practice Wednesday. “We don’t think like that. We shouldn’t think like that. We’re four games behind the play-in. we have everything we need to make that jump and make the play-in game this year.“It doesn’t matter who we play against. We need every win we can get. We have 23 more and we’re four games behind. We’ve worked a lot to give us a chance. We have to make sure we make the most of it.”"
Every win is going to be important. There is only a very narrow margin for error for this team.
The Toronto Raptors at 28-31 are on pace to win 39 games this season (based on win percentage, at least). That would mean Orlando would have to go 15-8 the rest of the season to make that number — a win percentage that would have the team on track to win 53 games in a full 82-game season.
The pathway is open though for the Orlando Magic, even with other teams to climb over in the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls before they even get to the Toronto Raptors in 10th.
The Magic have 10 games remaining against teams with records worse than .500. That includes two critical games against the Washington Wizards that will have major standings implications (the Orlando Magic have already dropped two games to the Wizards).
All 10 of these games are vital. Orlando at least needs a winning record in these games to give the team a chance at its bigger goal.
And that goes back to the details. It goes back to the little things the Magic have to do to win on a night-in, night-out basis. That is what it takes to be successful in this league and in these games particularly.
Everyone on the team repeated the last 23 games are about the team itself and what it does more than its opponents.
"“Those levels of detail are going to be more important no matter who it is,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after practice Wednesday. “Are we boxing out? Are we coming across the lane protecting the rim? Are we flying and contesting shots? Are we doing that no matter who we play? And then understanding personnel. Offensively, are we sharing the basketball? Are we moving it the right way? Are we trusting how we’re cutting? No matter who you play, there are obviously going to be different types of opponents, but we have to make sure we are taking care of us.”"
If the Magic are able to take care of these details, the wins will take care of themselves too. That is the ultimate focus.
But the results speak for themselves too. The Magic are in a postseason chase and the only thing that matters is whether the team is able to pick up wins and losses. And this is an area where the Magic need to improve.
To make this push, the Magic simply need to beat the teams they should.