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Magic vs. Hawks preview: Orlando clinging to a spot in the playoff race

The Magic look to snap a three-game losing streak and keep playoff hopes alive

NBA: Orlando Magic at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Magic seem to belong in the lottery one week, the playoffs the next week, and back in the lottery the week after that.

After an ugly four-game losing streak, the Magic earned what seemed to be season-saving back-to-back victories over the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets. They have since lost three straight, including an overtime loss to the Pistons, a blown 20-plus point lead to the Nets, and a lackluster defense performance against the well-rested Bucks.

So, for Magic fans, the back-and-forth debate those who think the Magic should aim for the lottery and those who believe they should strive for the playoffs wages on.

If the Magic are too make a push for the playoffs, sweeping the season-series with the Atlanta Hawks would certainly help. The Magic play the 14-31 Hawks four times over their final 36 games, starting with Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee in Atlanta.

“Next game against Atlanta is a big one for us, and the one after that,” Nikola Vucevic told reporters after the Magic’s 118-108 loss to the Bucks. “We can’t keep digging ourselves into a hole. This is it for us, every game for us going forward is like a Game 7.”

It’s been quite some time since the Magic have experienced a Game 7...or a Game (insert any number between 1 and 6 here) for that matter. To have any hope of doing so this year, they must snap out of a recent defensive slump that has helped drop their record to 19-27, which is a season-worst eight games under .500.

During their current three-game losing streak, the Magic have a defensive rating of 118.3 points per 100 possessions. Their opponents have a combined effective field goal percentage of 57.1% in that span, and have scored 16.3 fast break points per game.

A part of the Magic’s poor transition defense against the Bucks could have been tired legs in what was the second game of a back-to-back. They’ve had a day off to recover but will get little rest defensively against the Hawks, who play at the fastest pace in the league (105.5 possessions per game).

That up-tempo style hasn’t equated to offensive success as the Hawks enter with the second lowest offensive rating in the league at 104.0 points per, thanks in part to a league worst 17.9 turnover percentage.

The Hawks, though, have gone 8-8 over their last 16 games, with their two most recent wins coming against the Thunder and Sixers (they also led for a bulk of the night against the Celtics before falling in the fourth). The main catalyst in those victories for the Hawks was John Collins, who was drafted with the 19th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. In his second season, the 6-10 power forward has nearly double his scoring average from 10.5 to 19.0 points per game, and is also grabbing 10.4 rebounds per.

Further complicating that defensive assignment for the Magic is the availability of Aaron Gordon, who missed Saturday’s game because of back stiffness and is listed as questionable for Monday’s game.

The Magic will also be getting their first official look at rookie point guard, Trae Young, who was the object of many Magic fans’ desire leading up to the Draft...

Young was drafted by the Mavericks with the fifth pick - one spot before the Magic, who had the sixth pick - and was then traded to the Hawks for Luka Doncic and a future first round pick. The trend of the Magic always seeming to be a pick away continued.

Young is averaging 16.0 points and 7.2 assists per game, but shooting just 39.6 percent from the field and 29.2 percent from three, and turning the ball over 4.1 times a game. Rookie shooting woes and dismal assist to turnover ratio aside, Young would have filled a glaring need for the Magic.

The Magic now sit three games back of the Charlotte Hornets for the eighth and final playoff spot, with the Pistons and Wizards also ahead of them in the race. This week, with match-ups against the Nets and Wizards coming after the Hawks game, will be crucial in the Magic keeping any semblance of playoff contention alive.

“We don’t have any margin for error any more,” Vucevic said. “This is it for us and this is our season. So we either show that we’re built to do this or not. So we’ll see how we all react.”