Orlando Magic fans feel how big this weekend series against the Boston Celtics is.
In the standings, the game is between two of the top three (now four) teams in the Eastern Conference. For a young Magic team, it is a chance to prove themselves against one of the elite teams in the league.
Orlando is trying to make it through to this contending group. Just as much as they are trying to prove to the rest of the league that they belong.
There is the other side of that coin though. Orlando is hoping to gain respect from their peers as much as anything else. They want teams to feel like games against the Magic have that big feeling too.
Orlando was disappointed for sure with its 128-111 loss to Boston on Friday. There is a sense of redemption the team is looking for Sunday -- just as much as the team is eager to go up against other elite Eastern Conference teams in this quarter of the season including a back-to-back with the Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks this week.
But it felt bigger than that. Jaylen Brown called it one of the biggest games of the season for the Celtics (via Jared Weiss of The Athletic):
"I think this is the biggest game of the year so far, in my opinion," Brown told The Athletic. "I think, one, we had a bunch of guys out and on a back-to-back versus a team that’s been kicking our [butt] the last four or five times we played. I think this was the biggest game to me so far."
That was as much a product of how the Celtics played. They had 31 assists, the second-most for the team this season. They played without all three of their centers and thus had to rally and fill in. Everyone stepped in.
But Boston is also well aware of what Orlando has done to them in the last four meetings, including the win during the In-Season Tournament where at least a few Boston players were publicly annoyed by the perception Orlando was running up the score (those were part of the rules of the tournament though).
To some extent, the Magic are starting to gain some respect around the league.
"I really do believe that our guys are earning the respect of other teams, other opponents and other coaches," Jamahl Mosley said after practice Saturday. "That is what we have to continue to earn. We can't expect it on each and every night, we have to go take it. That's what this team is recognizing and wanting to feel. They have to earn the respect of the league, of their opponents on a nightly basis."
Respect is indeed earned. The Magic have started to earn it with the way they have played consistently and with the wins they have picked up.
Players understand that their strong start has helped them gain some respect around the league. They have commented that teams are more focused on playing against them. And the Magic have handled that part of their start well, going 9-1 against teams with records worse than .500.
What the team is constantly trying to prove, as Jalen Suggs put it after a recent home game, is this is not the same old Magic team. This is a team that is going to be tough to face.
Orlando is working to change that narrative around the league. And they know the best way to do that is to do it against these marquee opponents.
That is still the next challenge for this team -- Orlando is 7-7 against teams with records better than .500, the third most wins in the Eastern Conference. They need marquee wins. They need to keep proving themselves.
Maybe that will heighten the urgency and attention to detail in Sunday's game.
"I think it is a mutual respect," Cole Anthony said after practice Saturday. "They respect us. We obviously respect them. They showed us the ultimate respect by the way they came out and kicked our butt yesterday. We can't take that on the chin. We have to lock in and have a proper response tomorrow."
Orlando clearly wants to view itself on the same level as teams like the Celtics. They are not quite there yet. And the only way to prove that is to compete and win these kinds of games.
The Magic are certainly the team that is trying to prove something that is not there. Boston is the team already established at the top of the mountain. Orlando is trying to reach that level.
The key of course is to take everything one game at a time. The Magic know there is a tough schedule ahead, but they have to start with their own work and whatever game is ahead of them first. No doubt, the schedule for the next month will be difficult.
But respect is indeed earned. The Magic have earned more na dmore of that respect during the course of this season. And the more Orlando wins and the more it establishes itself in the top of the standings, the more the accolades will come from the national media and the more other teams will lock in to play them.
Ultimately, everyone recognizes that winning is the best way to gain this perception of respect. Opponents are certainly respecting the Magic very quickly.
Very clearly the team is starting to earn that respect more and more.