Every loss feels big. That is how narrow the margin for error feels as the Orlando Magic eye their ultimate goal at the end of the season.
The social media reactions to the Magic continuing to struggle with their shot and the ups and downs of a seaare son predictably all over the place.
Defeat the Los Angeles Lakers? The Magic are set to take over the world and are undeniably going to get homecourt advantage in the Playoffs.
Lose to the Dallas Mavericks? This team will be lucky to sniff the Play-In with its inherent and obvious flaws.
With a Play-In Tournament where the margins are going to be small, every game does have that added importance.
Losing a late lead against the Los Angeles Lakers, a halftime lead against the LA Clippers or a 15-point lead against the Dallas Mavericks in October and November could well be the difference between a six-seed or a Play-In spot, a home game and a road game in said Play-In Tournament, or needing one win or two wins to make the Playoffs.
No pressure, right?
But that is the point. The pressure is what the Magic are after. They are trying to display their maturity and grow as a team. It would be crazy for the team not to be thinking and talking about their potential as a postseason team. It was not an expectation they were hiding from.
The Orlando Magic are eyeing a return to the postseason this year. The one thing they are missing is experience and that is what the team is hoping to build and gain throughout the 2024 season.
And so, yes, every game and every experience this season is about learning what it will take ultimately to win in March and April and then into May and the postseason. This is a year trying to make up ground and gain some needed playoff experience, something this team simply does not have internally.
And it is an important experience this team is working toward and preparing for all season. One they cannot possibly prepare for until they get there.
"“I remember my first playoff experience it was like a deer in the headlights of what the heck was that,” Jonathan Isaac said at media day. “I remember we won our first game in Toronto and was like we have to do that three more times? The exhaustion, the attention to detail, the just everything. Once we hit that point, which we will, to be able to instill that in guys and be a sounding board of understanding and peace and weathering the storm.”"
Orlando is short on players who have actually played in the playoffs.
Isaac had the five-game experience in the 2019 series with the Toronto Raptors. Aside from him, there is 50 career playoff games from newcomer Joe Ingles, 28 career playoff games from Gary Harris and eight career playoff games from Markelle Fultz. Nobody else has played in the postseason for this team. Fultz and Isaac are the only ones to have playoff experience with the Magic.
The Magic certainly hope that deep FIBA World Cup runs for both Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner (along with Moe Wagner) can help be a substitute for the kind of pressure games the Magic are hoping to play.
The playoffs are certainly front of mind with both Cole Anthony and Wendell Carter specifically stating their desire to play in their first playoff games this season. It is an inescapable goal for this team.
But as Isaac noted, there is no preparation for the intensity and detail required to win in the playoffs. Orlando stole that Game 1 on a buzzer-beating shot from D.J. Augustin. But the Magic never sniffed another game, losing on late-game execution in Game 3 and never being fully competitive the rest of the series.
Very clearly, this Orlando team expects to be in the conversation for the playoffs. It is far too early to look at the standings but the Magic have indeed looked like a far more competitive bunch to start the season. Orlando has led at halftime of every game and their two “blowout” losses came because of dominant third quarters.
If anything, the Magic’s struggle this year is building on the details and understanding the day-to-day and moment-to-moment focus needed to succeed. They have been unusually locked in and focused for a team playing so well. That is why Monday’s loss to the Mavericks was jarring because the team lost its focus defensively for the first time all season.
But everyone on the Magic understands how much talent this team has. They did not hide from postseason expectations during media day and training camp. They know what their potential can be.
"“I’d say this is definitely probably the most talented roster,” Cole Anthony said at media day. “Even more talented than my rookie year that first half of the year. Honestly at the start, that team might have been a little better because they had been together so long and they just made the playoffs. The ceiling for this team is much higher. We could start reaching that ceiling this year.”"
The question remains for the Magic how best to get that talent to that level.
Coach Jamahl Mosley has always had the long-term in mind as he coached his team. His development and his goals for the team have always had the playoffs in mind. He will splice playoff clips and talk about the postseason with his team. Nobody has ever lost sight of where this team wants to go.
All they are missing is the experience of getting there and playing there. And so Orlando is learning as it goes.
There will certainly be setbacks on the way and a lot of lessons learned. The question for the Magic this season is how much they will go and how they will handle the pressure as the season progresses.
So far the Magic have taken some important steps and shown some impressive maturity. But they clearly have work to do to reach their potential.
Like the Magic’s previous playoff team, they have ambitions. This time they might have a lot more to help them reach those goals.
"“With Vooch [Nikola Vucevic], AG [Aaron Gordon] and Evan [Fournier], we definitely had our sights set on going farther, having that experience and veteran leadership with them,” Isaac said at media day. “But I think we are young, we have so much size, we have so much versatility. Even with that team we had some holes. Outside of experience, I don’t see holes from a talent perspective on this team. I think we have everything that we need. We’ll be able to give teams a run for their money just like we did last year.”"
The Magic have made their mark in the early season going 4-3. The team has the third-best defensive rating in the league at 105.6 points per 100 possessions. Their +3.3 net rating is ninth in the league.
Orlando has been one of the best teams in the league during the early part of the season and it has gotten some national notice. The Magic are a team that is clearly on the rise.
What nobody knows is whether that will crystallize into a postseason appearance. There is simply a lot of basketball left to play.
On that journey, the Magic will be aiming to gain as much experience as they can to prepare for this inevitable moment. And everything will be working toward and have a mind on getting there and being ready for it.