The Orlando Magic looked back on their work in the In-Season Tournament with a measure of pride and a measure of regret when they closed group play Friday with a win against the Boston Celtics.
The team had won one of the most anticipated and biggest games on their schedule and done so easily, blowing out the Celtics to set themselves up as the leaders in the clubhouse for both Group C and the wild card. They had picked up their sixth win in a row (Sunday's win over the Charlotte Hornets would make it seven) and were rolling.
Orlando had done all it could do to reach 3-1 in Group C and a +22 point differential. The team put itself in a great position to advance. But things did not break their way to advance.
The concern was apparent even with how good and excited the feeling was Friday afternoon. The Boston Celtics defeated the Chicago Bulls 124-97 to make up the 22-point gap the Orlando Magic left them with following Friday's game. The Brooklyn Nets defeated the Toronto Raptors 115-103 to force a three-way tie and send Group C to the point differential tiebreaker
The Celtics, knowing full well how much they needed to beat the Bulls to advance and pass the Magic, got the job done. For as important as the In-Season Tournament might be to a young Magic team, they could only sit and think about what could have been Tuesday night.
All they can take is the most important lesson: Every game counts.
"I think it's been great getting a chance to play for something," Paolo Banchero said after Friday's win over the Celtics. "I think we've done a great job the last three games. I think the Brooklyn game we kind of didn't realize it was a tournament game. I think for us after the game it was frustrating because we lost by 20 and felt like we handed them the game. These last three, we completely flipped and took it a lot more serious."
That 20-point loss to the Nets two weeks ago is literally the reason why the Magic are not heading to Indianapolis for the quarterfinal round next week -- the Magic will wait for their replacement games to get announced for next week, assumedly one home and one road game added to the schedule.
In the end, Orlando missed winning Group C by five points and missed out on the wild card that went to the New York Knicks by 20 points. The Magic did everything else they needed with a 3-1 record. That 20-point loss to the Brooklyn Nets in the opener and losing a 20-point lead to the Chicago Bulls (the Orlando Magic won the game by six) are both moments the team needed to have back to advance.
But whether the Magic advanced or not in the In-Season Tournament is not so important as this experience of playing for something for the first time.
Orlando had to learn the important lesson that every game matters and every moment matters when a trophy is on the line. In meaningful games, every little thing can be important.
For a young team like the Magic, the In-Season Tournament was meant to give the team a little taste of what playoff intensity might feel like and how to manage the emotions of a series. That is something the Magic have never experienced.
This was not playoff intensity by any means. The games were a bit more intense, but not nearly the intensity of the postseason. Still, the team experienced some measure of success under this pressure.
That is something this group has never done.
Regardless of the outcome of the In-Season Tournament, this team is on a seven-game win streak and sitting in second in the Eastern Conference. Paolo Banchero won Eastern Conference Player of the Week and the entire league is singing their praises.
This is indeed uncharted territory for this group. And everyone wants to know how this young team will respond. That might be the greatest thing this team could learn from this experience.
"We've said: How do we handle success," coach Jamahl Mosley said after practice Tuesday. "A big portion of that is not taking the good or the bad and you just stay the same. You stick with the body of work that we have done, which is you make sure you are competing every single night, we are detailing our work and making sure we get all that done. That we are not going to beat ourselves. We continue to cover for each other offensively and defensively and you still have that same sense of joy no matter the outcome. It's about the work that you do not necessarily what people say about you."
That has been the repeated message for this young team. It is something Mosley reiterated from Friday. It was the big centerpiece of the article Marc J. Spears wrote on the upstart Magic for AndScape this week.
The Magic needed the time to grow their identity and see it get tested. In losing their first game, the Magic got put under pressure and got put under the microscope even to give themselves a chance to advance. It should be clear after the first run through this tournament that 3-1 is necessary to have a chance to advance.
Orlando fell short in that first game in their most lackluster performance of the season. They exited the tournament despite correcting all of those problems to wint he final three games. They found that focus they needed after all.
More than that, the team showed it can rise to the occasion with its back against the walls. The Orlando Magic beat the Chicago Bulls on a buzzer-beating shot and added close wins over the Bulls and the Denver Nuggets in the meantime.
This team has done a lot of growing up these past two weeks. And they seem eager to do more.
"I think we have a lot of players who when there is something riding on the line, they elevate their game and don't shy away from the pressure or shy away from the moment," Banchero said after Friday's win. "The whole team and guys have that mentality and it carries through."
The proof of whether the Magic can carry this over will be shown in the final three-quarters of the season. There is still a long way to go to get to April and the playoffs. The Magic have done their job so far to race out to the lead.
But the In-Season Tournament certainly has shown that the job is not finished until the job is finished. And the team should not count on others to clinch their spot. The Magic have to do the work themselves.
This team is in a new place. It is experiencing new things and accomplishing something different. The expectations of what is possible are starting to change for this group. Maybe those expectations always existed internally.
"It's nice when you look up and see you guys are sitting at second in the East," Banchero said after practice Tuesday. "It's been a while since the Magic have been there. It's a testament to the work everyone is putting in and a testament to the group that we have and the bond we have. I don't think anybody is surprised or feeling lucky. We knew this could happen. We spoke it into existence kind of. We are reaping the benefits so we have to keep going and keep building on it."
But everything is still a lesson for this young team. Everything is something the team can take and absorb for the games that will matter in April and May when this team makes the Playoffs.
The ultimate lesson of the In-Season Tournament for the Magic was to understand how precious and important every game can be. And how to handle the pressure.
More than that, the Magic are learning how to handle and measure success. They are learning how to be the same every game and approach everything the same.
That is the maturity the team is seeking. That is what they learned through the In-Season Tournament. Or what they hope they can carry forward now that their tournament is over.