Orlando Magic learning, growing in the chase for the Playoffs

The Orlando Magic faced what Playoff basketball will almost surely be like for them. They responded to a crushing defeat and answered every run as chaos developed throughout the league.
The Orlando Magic had to answer the call following Fridya's disappointing loss and with the Chicago Bulls breathing down their necks. They answered it to set themselves up for a wild final week.
The Orlando Magic had to answer the call following Fridya's disappointing loss and with the Chicago Bulls breathing down their necks. They answered it to set themselves up for a wild final week. / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

38. Final. 98. 24. Magic Bulls Final 04.07.24. 113

The Orlando Magic had done what they set out to do in running through the Chicago Bulls from the tip, building out a double-digit lead and hanging on throughout. They had answered the call from their biggest flaw in the loss to the Charlotte Hornets.

This was direct improvement.

So too was the decisive moment of the game. Because no lead in the NBA is safe. The Bulls whittled the Magic's lead down to six after DeMar DeRozan hit an and-1 over Paolo Banchero, drawing the Magic's star player's fifth foul.

Orlando called timeout trying to regather themselves and find their composure. That is when Markelle Fultz spoke up.

Jalen Suggs said Markelle Fultz spoke to the team in the huddle, while emotions were high with the comeback happening, to try to calm them down. The team was clearly frustrated with the officiating. But Fultz snapped them back on task. He said to stop paying attention to the refs and focus on what the team needed to do to win.

The Magic entered the game with one goal: Hold the Bulls under 100 points. The Magic wanted to make a statement and "bring the heat" and make the Bulls feel uncomfortable. The rest would take care of itself if they took care of that bit of business.

If they did that, they would accomplish the only stat that matters at this time of year: A win.

The Magic answered that run exactly how they needed to with a 12-1 run to put the game out of reach.

Paolo Banchero responded to the foul by stepping into a mid-range jumper and burying it. After a stop, Banchero again got to his spot and whipped a pass to the opposite corner for Joe Ingles to bury a three.

Like that, the Magic were back up 11 and the Bulls never seriously threatened. In the Magic's penultimate home game at Kia Center this year, they rolled to a 113-98 victory, putting behind the disappointing effort Friday and climbing to the 3-seed in the Eastern Conference for at least the next two days (there are no games Monday for the NCAA Tournament final).

Once again, the Magic's growing maturity and poise was on display. Again, the team looks prepared and ready for the Playoffs to begin.

"It's growth," coach Jamahl Mosley said. "Understanding what they are doing and the run they are going on. We have to continue to understand it is a game of runs and knowing how to stop those runs. In the timeout, those guys get into the huddle, communicate what we needed to do both offensively and defensively. I think they did a great job executing the gameplan."

The Magic took control of this one from the start. They raced out to a 31-14 lead after the first quarter, forcing seven turnovers in the opening quarter and flying to the ball at all times. The Bulls shot just 33.3 percent in the opening quarter.

Like in their loss to the Hornets on Friday, the Magic put the Bulls on the mat early and were able to make mistakes and still maintain the lead. They were able to refocus and come out scorching to answer runs.

This was how the game was played. The Magic raced out to the lead, the Bulls battled back only for the Magic to put their foot down again. That is how games go in the NBA. That is how they will go in the Playoffs. It is all about managing and answering these runs and the emotions that come with the game.

In this moment, the Magic needed Fultz to step up and say the right words for the team to calm them down. They needed to respond, as they have all season to get to this point. And just as they will need to in the Playoffs when the pressure rises further.

"I just think I have been through a lot in this league and understand what it takes to win and how hard it is to win in this league," Markelle Fultz said after Sunday's win. "To have a team that is so well put together and cares about each other off the court and on the court. Being able to not get too high or too low. . . . As long as we do that, we'll have a chance against any team in the league."

The Magic needed that focus to come back around. They needed that reminder of who they are and what they are capable of.

Orlando indeed met its goal of holding Chicago to fewer than 100 points. The Bulls posted a 104.3 offensive rating.

The Magic's defense suffocated the Bulls into 21 turnovers for 28 points. That counteracted a strong 50.7-percent shooting night (although just 6 for 20 from three). The Bulls never had the firepower to come back.

Fultz backed up his words in the huddle with stellar play on the court. He finished with 17 points on 8-for-12 shooting, finding his spots and helping anchor the bench group through some difficult minutes. Fultz was the right choice to close the game after Franz Wagner sprained his ankle in the third quarter.

That was another setback for the team. But Orlando answered it expanding the lead from 12 to 17 immediately after Wagner left the game. The Magic got it out to as much as 19 in the third quarter in Wagner's immediate absence.

The Magic weathered the storms like they will have to in the Playoffs.

"The ability to come in and understand the nature of this league, the nature of not only the game of basketball, but of life in that it's imperfect," Suggs said after Sunday's win. "We had things going on, things that happened in Charlotte -- tough travel and they came out and played a good game. Sometimes you have to just tip your cap. Good teams have been losing and dropping some games at the end of the year this year. So just continuing to bounce back. Continuing to move on to the next thing. I think we did a great job of that tonight."

The Magic have had to ride those waves all season. Every team does. And now that the pressure is reaching its zenith as the season comes to a close, the teams that can withstand those runs and handle them are the ones that will succeed.

This Magic team is still learning. They know they are still displaying and showing their growth one step and one game at a time. But they responded the way they needed to.

They responded following a disappointing effort and they responded when the chips were down and they could have broken.

Next. Magic hit-first mentality 04.06.24. Orlando Magic have built hit-first defensive mentality. dark

That is what has the Magic in a strong position to finish the season.