Orlando Magic return home with thin postseason hopes, a lot of lessons learned

Jamahl Mosley and the Orlando Magic have made a lot of progress this season. But their postseason dreams appear to be just out of reach. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Jamahl Mosley and the Orlando Magic have made a lot of progress this season. But their postseason dreams appear to be just out of reach. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic knew there would be pressure. They knew they would feel it. It was important for them to feel the weight of these games and the crushing blow of these losses.

Actually making the postseason was going to be a real challenge. But that has not stopped this team before. Their resilience and their potential have been on full display. They just had to pull together and find a way to win enough games to make that push.

The Magic though had their opportunity and the chance to make that push. They just let those opportunities slip through their fingers.

As the Magic return home from their West Coast trip and face their final 10 games, their postseason dreams are remote at best. It will take a serious rally — essentially running the table — to make the Play-In Tournament.

Instead, the Magic are left with the lessons of managing a postseason chase and a lot of missed opportunities along the way.

The Orlando Magic are essentially out of the postseason chase after they return from their West Coast trip. While there is still something to fight for, the reflection on what it will take to improve has begun.

There was the loss to the Indiana Pacers at home with a chance to climb over them in the standings — a critical step in the Orlando Magic’s always remote postseason hopes. In the end, this Magic team was not ready for that moment.

In the end, the team was just only able to tread water and eventually the tide and pressure to win consumed them. Orlando was truly fighting hard but unable to scratch their way out.

The 1-3 homestand that featured close losses to the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz feels like a major turning point. Orlando was unable to chase down close wins in those two games that could have flipped the team’s momentum and sent them on this critical road trip riding a high to make that final push.

Even in the best scenarios, the Magic would come home from this West Coast trip knowing whether they could make that final push in the final 10 games for the postseason. This was always the time to assess where the team was at and whether a postseason push was realistic.

So after a 1-3 road trip that saw the team lose to the lowly (but suddenly streaking) San Antonio Spurs, the Orlando Magic return home with their postseason dreams likely dashed. The team has taken some hard lessons with more close losses — this time to the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers — and more experience and hard lessons.

The reality though is that a postseason chase does not care about these lessons. It only cares about wins and losses. It only cares about results.

And with two wins in the past eight games at this critical juncture of the season, the results have not gone in the Magic’s favor. They have faded from the race.

With 10 games remaining, the Orlando Magic find themselves 5.5 games behind the Chicago Bulls for that final Play-In spot after the Bulls’ stunning double-overtime win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday.

With 29 wins, the Orlando Magic’s elimination number is six losses or six Chicago Bulls wins (and the Bulls are starting to pull away from the pack themselves, separating themselves by two games from the 11th-place Washington Wizards).

If the Bulls finish even just .500 the rest of the season, they will end up with 39 wins. That would demand perfection from the Magic to reach.

Orlando is only making the postseason if the team goes a perfect 10-0 the rest of the season maybe even 9-1. It is the longest of long shots in all reality. And that is just controlling for the Bulls.

To say the least, then, Tuesday’s game against the Wizards is not just important because it is an opponent directly ahead of the Magic in the standings. It is important because a loss only makes that tall hill even more difficult to climb.

Orlando has not shied away from discussing their play-in ambitions. And that should not go away. Even when the mathematical possibilities exhaust themselves, the Magic will get so much more value from the experience of playing these tight games late.

With the Play-In Tournament, everyone except the bottom-four teams in the league — the Charlotte Hornets, San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets — are playing for something. The Magic are likely the next team to join that list as mathematically eliminated.

That will be valuable in itself.

The Magic could feel the desperation from the Lakers in their loss Sunday night just as the Magic had to up their urgency to get back into the game. That game came down to simple execution and shotmaking, something the Orlando Magic were successful in during Saturday’s win over the LA Clippers, but something they have struggled with all year.

These are the growing pains the team has to go through. Learning how to handle these close games and find ways to scratch out plays and ultimately wins is where this team needs to go.

Orlando is 16-23 in clutch situations this year. Even finishing at .500 in those games — a 19-20 record — would create a completely different outlook for this team.

But young teams struggle with these things. And if this is the year to experience this for the first time and fail at it, the hope will be that Orlando will pull through and be better.

It will teach the team how critical their start was — a 5-20 start certainly hangs heavy over this team and its ambitions regardless of the injuries that created it.

It will teach the team how critical flipping close games are for a young team.

It will teach them how big dropping games to weaker opponents with unfocused efforts was — Orlando has two losses to Detroit, a loss to San Antonio, a loss to Charlotte and a loss to Houston on its ledger.

All these things matter and these are all things the Magic needed to learn. It is something the team hopefully has learned.

There will always be fits and starts to any season. There will always be trials and tribulations. Success and struggles. Ups and downs.

Orlando has faced plenty of all of that. The team has taken some critical steps forward.

The outlines of a future playoff team have come into focus. The team even being in the conversation for a postseason berth — even if peripherally — was proof the team is getting more serious about winning and knocking on the door of that next step.

That is where the team is headed for next year. And all these hard lessons from this season will be important for this team to digest and absorb heading into next year.

Orlando still has much to gain from continuing to put these high expectations on themselves and feel the pressure that comes from these intense games. They need to start putting the expectation of winning on themselves.

That will also teach the front office what they will need — more depth in general, more shooting in general and better front-court depth — to take that next step. There is a lot to learn for everyone from failure and struggle.

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But the Magic are coming home from their West Coast trip facing an extremely tall challenge to play past the regular season. They will have a lot to break down and push for in the final 10 games. But it is not likely to have much to do with the postseason other than a nominal interest in reaching it.