Orlando Magic are shaping their playoff standard

The Orlando Magic are starting to round into form and they are starting to measure their wins differently. The team is developing and playing to its standard as the postseason chase heats up.
Wendell Carter and the Orlando Magic are establishing their standard as they enter the playoff race.
Wendell Carter and the Orlando Magic are establishing their standard as they enter the playoff race. / Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Following the Orlando Magic's loss to the Miami Heat on Tuesday, Paolo Banchero sat down at the table set up in the visiting media room with what looked like the world's weight on his shoulders.

Everyone knew how big the game against the Heat could be for potential tiebreakers at the end of the season. But it felt like a poor way to end what looked like a successful road trip. The Magic went 3-2 with a two-point loss in Dallas as the only other defeat. The team was certainly better than the 26-point loss they just suffered -- a loss where the team looked tired.

Banchero was not interested in excuses. He was not even interested in the Magic's winning record on this road trip. He was thinking about the work they had to do. He saw that success as something of a mirage.

"We've got to be better," Banchero said after Tuesday's loss. "[We] went to San Antonio, blew a 25-point lead, barely snuck that game out. Went to Detroit, kind of messed around and luckily Franz went off for 38 and barely snuck that game out. We're 3-2, but we've got to be better. Hopefully, we come these last four before the break and play harder."

That is something new. That is a new attitude for a team. That is a playoff attitude.

And that is why winning is not the only thing the Magic care about.

They are measuring themselves against a new standard. If something was frustrating about Tuesday's loss, it was that Orlando did not measure up to the division and conference's standard-bearer. They did not climb the hill in a critical game with significant implications for standings.

There is still a lot of work this team has to do. And everyone recognizes it as this team matures.

Winning is what matters. But winning the right way matters more for the places the Magic want to go. They are still creating their standard to play to.

"The entire team, us growing up and realizing that just winning games is not enough," Jonathan Isaac said after shootaround on Thursday. "The way we are growing as a team, especially heading into the second half of the season, is important. We have to be playing the right way and winning the right way. We can get by on certain games. We want to continue to move forward as a team and a collective to be ready to play in the Playoffs."

The Magic's 3-2 road trip would typically signify success. But the team had this distaste for how things developed throughout the road trip.

Coach Jamahl Mosley highlighted the team's poor starts in those games as a sign the team has to round into form, as much as Paolo Banchero pointed out how the team nearly lost some of their wins.

The Orlando Magic trailed 12-4 early in the win over the San Antonio Spurs, they trailed 20-11 (and eventually by 17) in the first quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and they were down 10-4 early against the Detroit Pistons. They came back to win all of those games, but it was playing with fire.

Against the Heat, they got burned, going down 7-0 and 11-2 as they struggled to keep up on the road. That led to a 20-point first-half deficit that Orlando got down to seven at halftime and ultimately a 26-point loss as the team could not climb uphill.

This was a big focus in Thursday's win over the Spurs. The Magic raced out to a 9-0 lead and never really looked back -- the game was tied only once toward the end of the first quarter.

Still, like the game in San Antonio, the Magic were disappointed and highlighted the 41-point quarter they gave up in the third quarter. Their offense kept the lead comfortable -- it got down to as little as 10. But the quarter reminded everyone they still have a standard to uphold.

"I liked that first half and the way in which we played defense," Mosley said after Thursday's game. "We guarded the ball the right way, flew around, contested shots, finished possessions with a rebound. That first half was a thing of beauty for us defensively.

"And then there's also the discussion about the third quarter, giving up 41 points and then giving 50 points in the paint, along with turning the basketball over. So those are areas of improvement. But that first half was something that we can build upon."

The Magic are still trying to set their standard and realize that is what they are measured against, not wholly the result. And so the third quarter of Thursday's game served as a reminder of why that is the case.

The team still responded the right way. The team still won. And it is vital to learn these lessons while winning. But the team knows it is playing for something bigger.

That is part of the development this team is going through.

"When we look back at certain games, we try to preach process over results," Wendell Carter said after shootaround Thursday. "Sometimes the results are not what we want. But sometimes you can play good and still lose and sometimes you can play bad and still win. We want to limit the playing bads. We want to continue to play good, play with a lot of effort, and let the results speak for themselves. A 3-2 road trip wasn't bad, but the two games we lost that we could have won if we would have paid more attention to detail and played with a little more effort."

This encapsulates what this Magic team is learning in the final 30 games of the season. They are learning to bring consistency to each game and stacking up wins.

It is a new experience.

Carter has never been to the playoffs. He has not even been above .500 at this stage of the season. There are a lot of players who have similar experiences. And so much of this year is simply about learning what this whole playoff chase feels like as the team puts together a push up the standings.

The team is looking at the standings every day and is at least aware of where they stand. They know they have to take care of their business on the court.

"We're definitely looking at every game as very important," Carter said after shootaround Thursday. "With us being so young, it's really good that we are looking at each game with a sense of maturity, a sense of we've got to go get this one. Looking at the standings every day, continuing to find ways to climb the standings so we have a good position going into the playoffs."

Isaac is one of the few players who has playoff experience. He feels the team is moving in the right direction. But everything will be new. And this team is in a different place than the 2019 team.

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The Magic have established their identity and their way to win. Now they are trying to hold themselves to that standard every time they step on the court.