Entering Thursday's light slate of NBA games, the Orlando Magic held the Eastern Conference's third playoff seed, with a three-game edge on the Philadelphia 76ers in the loss column, and trailing the Miami Heat by six games. Barring a strong surge from Philly, or a collapse by Orlando or Miami, one can pencil the Magic in for the three-seed and a first-round matchup with whichever team claims the six-seed.
It's late March, so it's the time of the season when writers begin prognosticating the playoffs. Common sense strongly suggests Miami and the Chicago Bulls will meet in the East Finals, but at least two scribes have pointed out that Orlando stands as good a chance as any of preventing a Heat/Bulls rematch. "Orlando is the one team most likely ot break up a Heat-Bulls conference finals," writes ESPN's John Hollinger in his PER Diem column. "With its heavy reliance on the 3-point shot, Orlando is the classic boom-bust offense, giving the Magic a puncher's chance in a short series."
Ken Berger of CBSSports.com agrees, naming the Magic second on his list of "top five upset-ready teams heading into the postseason," trailing only the Memphis Grizzlies. But Berger makes a salient point when he writes, "Orlando is that rare team that's just as capable of being an upset victim as pulling one off." By virtue of owning the three-seed, Orlando could avoid the top-seeded Chicago squad until the Conference Finals, and could present matchup problems to Miami in the second round. "The way the Heat have been struggling since the All-Star break," says Berger, "Orlando could give Miami fits in a possible conference semifinals matchup."
Orlando's far from a sexy pick to pull a playoff upset, given its night-to-night volatility. Though Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus points out, and somewhat surprisingly, the Magic aren't any more or less reliable than the average team, when adjusted for strength of schedule, the team's uneven effort has frustrated its fans and coaching staff throughout the season. Ten teams have scored 70 points or fewer a total of 20 times during the 2011/12 campaign, and Orlando leads the league with four such performances, including a 56-point outing against the Boston Celtics and a 59-point game against the Bulls, who were playing without Derrick Rose, the All-Star point guard and reigning league MVP.
Yet the Magic also topped the Bulls, with Rose, just 11 days before last Monday's stinker. They split the season-series with Miami, 2-2, and soundly defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in January.
Can the Magic derail the hotly anticipated Bulls/Heat showdown? It depends on whom they draw in the first round--they'd like to avoid the Celtics or Atlanta Hawks, against whom they're 0-4 to date--and how their outside shooters fare. This team may not inspire much confidence, but they're not 32-19 by accident.