Orlando Magic looking to break through the pressure of mid-season Playoff race

The Orlando Magic have found themselves in the middle of an intense playoff chase, with pressure now coming from both sides. Coach Jamahl Mosley hopes the experience in the Play-In Tournament will help galvanize them.

Paolo Banchero did his best to will the Orlando Magic past the Miami Heat, knowing how important every win is going to be the rest of this season.
Paolo Banchero did his best to will the Orlando Magic past the Miami Heat, knowing how important every win is going to be the rest of this season. / Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
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The Orlando Magic are feeling the weight and disappointment of every win or loss right now. They know that every opportunity is an important one for this team.

That is certainly why the team's urgency and desperation seemed to kick in for the final two minutes of Friday's loss to the Miami Heat and even Saturday's loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Magic are feeling the pressure of every game as the playoff race tightens. And even through all the injuries, this team is trying to figure out how to push through. Everyone is doing what they can even if it is imperfect and the team is climbing way up hill.

Take Friday's loss to the Heat as an example of this team's willingness to fight and the pressure the team is feeling.

The Magic had a deficit to make up in the final two minutes and Paolo Banchero, for one, was not going to let this opportunity pass the team by. The door was left open for his team to win. He was going to push through.

And so, down three, Banchero got to the baseline and hit a miraculous fadeaway jumper over two defenders. The Magic forced a stop and got the ball back to their future All-Star. He delivered again with a tough jumper.

That this effort ended in a loss stung a lot at him.

After knocking the ball away from Bam Adebayo when Jalen Suggs switched onto him. The Heat had a review to draw up a play and got a good one, setting Bam Adebayo up for a short jumper over Moe Wagner.

Banchero had one more desperate attempt, getting to the basket for a runner that fell no good. He got his rebound but lost the ball on the way up for a Heat possession.

Down three, he could only get up a desperation heave for three. As he walked off the court, his frustration was visible as he shouted at himself and then later posted on his X account that he owed everyone one for the miss -- never mind, he did everything possible for an undermanned Magic team to win the game.

"I don't need losses to learn to be honest with you," Moe Wagner said after Friday's loss to the Heat. "We are all competitors and this stings. . . . I think we played a pretty solid game. Sometimes you lose. It sucks for now. Good thing we play in 24 hours."

Still, the weight of that loss was clear. Banchero said after the game that this is one the Magic should have won. The usually unflappable Magic team seemed a bit more devastated than usual after this one.

The Magic again scrambled to give themselves a chance to win Saturday in Oklahoma City. But turnovers and fouls ruined a comeback attempt in the fourth quarter.

The weight of these games cannot be understated. You just had to look at the standings to realize how big the game could potentially be -- not even just for the standings but also the tiebreaker implications.

After Saturday's loss to the Thunder, the Magic are 21-18 and slipping down the standings to eighth in the Eastern Conference. They trail the Miami Heat by 1.5 games for seventh (and homecourt for a potential 7/8 Play-In Tournament game) and trail the Indiana Pacers by 2.5 games for fourth in the East.

The standings are still incredibly tight.

But there is now some downward pressure with the Chicago Bulls gaining steam having won four of their past five games. The Bulls are now just three games back of the Magic for eighth.

There is no reason to fret for the Magic despite the injuries and the team going 7-13 since the end of the nine-game win streak. This has not been a strong quarter of the season and has deflated a lot of spirits. The injuries have only piled onto this feeling.

But this is also a team still gaining experience. And the Magic are still learning how to play in these close games or manage the ups and downs of the season.

The team is in a big down period right now and they are trying to find their way out without much experience. They are trying not to be overwhelmed with the playoff chase pressure everyone is feeling. And that is just new to them.

"You obviously want to take it one game at a time," coach Jamahl Mosley said before Friday's game in Miami. "But when you look at the standings, there is that group of teams that are bunched together. That's why the In-Season Tournament was so good because you can register and recognize the value of one game and how important it can be later on down the stretch."

That In-Season Tournament is good experience for this team.

In its truncated way, that tournament scenario forced the Magic to rally and find a way to put themselves in a position to have to rally and face must-win situations.

Players admitted they got bull-rushed and did not fully understand the importance of their 20-point loss in their In-Season Tournament opener against the Brooklyn Nets. That game ended up costing the team a chance to advance even though Orlando made up significant ground in winning the final three games of group play.

But the In-Season Tournament was always going to be used as a proving ground for a young team. The benefit it held for the Magic was as much about the experience of playing those pressure games as much as anything else.

If Orlando can lean on that experience as the season comes to a close and the playoff pressure increases, that will make that experience worth it. And it should mean the team can find a way to manage the close to their season.

The priority toward righting the ship is to get healthy. Injuries and illness have ravaged the team over the past two weeks and the Magic have struggled to keep their head above water.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel -- both with Joe Ingles, Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz returning to the lineup recently and the prospect of Franz Wagner making his return sooner than later.

The Magic also have the benefit of the easiest remaining schedules in the league by opponent win percentage, having finished with the Boston Celtics and one game remaining against the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves. Many more of those playoff teams get crossed off in the next few weeks -- the Magic play only three teams out of a playoff spot in their next 10 games.

The Magic still have the benefit of three more games against the Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets and two more games against the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies.

Orlando is 11-5 against teams with records below .500. There is still a lot of time to build up wins.

The Magic just have to get through this rough patch in January and be ready to push forward when the schedule comes back around in their favor.

The bottom just feels deeper because this team does not have the experience and the trust to get through it. They are still learning everything for the first time.

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But clearly this team will fight. Whether they can break through the pressure they are feeling is the ultimate question for this group.