Jonathan Isaac said after shootaround Tuesday that the Orlando Magic knew what an opportunity and how vital Tuesday's game against the Miami Heat could be for this Orlando Magic team when it gets to April and the postseason.
Even coach Jamahl Mosley had to acknowledge that his players looked at and knew the standings. They can see how tight the standings are and know what the tiebreaker implications might be. It is everywhere and on everyone's minds as the season reaches this critical point.
Playing the Heat is a big deal. Not only because the teams are neck-and-neck for sixth and seventh in the Eastern Conference. There have also been a lot of losses on the Kaseya Center floor.
It is undoubtedly the hill the team has to climb. The Heat are a tall mountain for many teams have to climb, even though they are sitting in the middle of the standings and do not seem the juggernaut they have previously been.
Miami is the standard for a lot of the league to defeat.
There is much to say about Heat Culture (TM) and the franchise in South Florida. But they have set a standard for themselves. They have set the standard in the Southeast Division (for whatever divisions are worth -- the winner gets a step-up in a three-way tiebreaker, which the Magic can no longer win in that scenario).
From the start of Tuesday's 121-95 Magic loss to the Heat, the Heat made sure everyone knew that.
They scored the opening seven points and forced five first-half turnovers to take control of the game from the jump. They sat and waited for the Magic in the middle of the floor before digging in and ripping the ball away -- Franz Wagner had seven turnovers. They gave up the lead and then forcefully rebuilt it, constantly attacking a sometimes sluggish Magic team.
They kicked Orlando's butts in a game that felt huge. It was a loss that had to be a bit staggering.
"I think just learning from losses and trying to turn it into a positive," Paolo Banchero said after Tuesday's game. "They are a well-coached team, a well-oiled machine. We've had some good battles with them. Today, they got the better of us. It's really about us right now."
Orlando understands its youth and understands there are lessons the team has to learn. They are embracing those lessons. But there are still a lot of missteps along the way.
Perhaps this was a game that put that contrast between the experienced and championship-proven Heat and the upstart Magic.
Miami played like a team that understood what was at stake and exactly how it needed to put its stamp on the game. Banchero said the Heat made shots but played like they wanted it more.
The Magic looked like a team at the end of a long road trip. Eventually, that fatigue caught up with everybody as the team seemed slow on both ends.
"It definitely stings," Markelle Fultz said after Tuesday's loss. "It's hard to win in this league. Coming in every night, we got to stay focused and play a full 48 minutes of basketball playing the right way. We can't come out and start like that and expect to fire our way back in. We have to learn from our mistakes tonight."
There were a lot of mistakes to look at. The Magic struggled to generate good shots -- losing the paint 58-44 and shooting only 43.8 percent from the floor and 10 for 35 from three (a sign of how much the Magic settled from deep).
Orlando had 18 turnovers for 19 points. Many were live-ball turnovers, with the Heat pushing the pace for 27 fast-break points. The Magic used first-half turnovers to keep the game close but could not overcome these miscues.
The Heat shot 54 percent from the floor and 13 for 36 from beyond the arc. They made 15 of 25 in a 40-point third quarter, including four 3-pointers. The Heat had just one turnover in the quarter to pull away.
The Magic still fought even though they played from behind. Orlando trailed by 20 points in the second quarter only to cut it down to seven at the half. After cutting the deficit to five early in the third quarter, the Magic lost grip of the game and never really got it back after giving up 40 points in the third.
They cut a 23-point deficit to 10 in the fourth quarter before Jimmy Butler hit back-to-back threes to snuff out the upstarts. The Heat locked to attention quickly.
The Magic's best plays came when they pushed aside their frustrations and just played. But there were far too many moments where the team looked to the officials to bail them out of physical play. That relief did not come.
This team had a lot of moments of immaturity -- something the Heat did not have despite their numerous mistakes.
That is a critical difference between these teams. Miami did not blink when things got tough. Orlando struggled to get things rolling again.
"I think it's just continuing to keep our poise," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Tuesday's game. "We always understand that you can't control those things and whether the whistle blows or not. You have to continue to attack the basket with the same aggression. But also understanding there are spray outs available with on-time, on-target passes. You can't control the whistle, you just have to continue to play through."
The Magic were frustrated and unfocused without that threat to score and the confidence to keep attacking. The Magic ran out of gas at the end of a long road trip.
That is not an excuse anybody wants to use it as such. The Magic must find the maturity to push through it and play at a playoff level.
They have to play to the kind of standard the Heat have set up for them. And even the success of a 3-2 road trip is not enough to rest on.
"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."
The Magic have to play to a standard. They have to play to the level they know they can.
That is what a team like the Heat does. That is what the veteran teams do -- the championship teams. The Magic are still finding their way there.
There is still a lot of season left. This game may not even matter in the end. The Magic have to take care of their own business -- particularly with a four-game homestand -- to set themselves up for success.
They still have something to look up to and aspire to be quite clearly.