No NBA team takes their fans on a more fast-turning, sharp-sloping roller coaster ride of emotions than the Orlando Magic.
Take the events of the past few days, for example.
Coming out of the All-Star break as the hottest team in the NBA, having won five straight in convincing fashion, the Magic returned to the court for one of the more highly-anticipated gamed in recent Magic history. There, Orlando dropped a one-point game to a Bulls team that entered with the league’s fourth worst record.
Magic Twitter: “Typical Magic! Expected disappointment! Team is a joke!”
One of my Magic friends sent me this earlier....very sad that the Magic can’t even beat a tanking bulls team, but hey that’s Orlando pic.twitter.com/AyYevbgy6O— Dustin Regan-Padilla (@dustinregpad) February 23, 2019
The success and goodwill the Magic built prior to the break was seemingly gone, never to return.
Less than 48 hours later, they took the court against the league’s second-best team, the Toronto Raptors. There, they led nearly wire-to-wire, earning a much-needed win that avenged the Bulls loss (yes, Kawhi Leonard didn’t play, but the Raptors had been 13-3 without him previously this season).
Magic Twitter: “The Magic are back on track! The Magic would give the Raptors trouble in the playoffs! The Magic are 7-5 against the top teams in the East!”
The celebration of the Magic’s success against some of the conference’s elite was on. Until, that is, they met one of the league’s worst.
In a game Orlando simply had to win, a game in which they led by as many as 16 points against the 12-48 Knicks, the Magic were overwhelmed in the fourth quarter of what became an inexcusable loss.
Magic Twitter: “How?! I’m done with this team! Another season, another tease!”
No excuse.— Al (@VC2SC) February 27, 2019
The #Magic lose games in ridiculous ways to the Bulls and Knicks after winning five straight games.
Guess what!? Now we face the Warriors, Pacers and 76ers in the next 4 games.
Unbelievable. I am speechless.
The wide-range of rapidly changing emotions is understandable.
How many teams would sandwich a win over the Raptors with losses to the Bulls and Knicks? It seems another tease for an Orlando Magic fanbase that has been tantalized more than once during the course of the Magic’s seven-year rebuild. Like when they started 19-13 under Scott Skiles and then dropped 12 of their next 13 games. Or when they jumped out to an 8-4 start last season and won just 17 games the rest of the way.
Fans are now left wondering whether the latest tease comes in the form of a playoff push by a team six games under .500. The answer to that lies in which version of this Magic team is to be believed: the one that lost to the Bulls and Knicks in a five-day span, or the one that is a Danny Green last-second shot away from having a 3-0 season-series record against the Raptors? The one that has lost 13 games in which they have led by double-digits, or the one that built the leads in the first place?
It’s a determination that is greatly complicated by the Magic’s unpredictable ability to beat the league’s best and lose to the league’s worst.
So, forget what the standings show, what the advanced statistics suggest, and what the computer-generated playoff odds calculate. What do your eyes and instincts tell you?
I’ll stop short of saying I’m an all-out believer in the potentially playoff-bound Magic, in fact I’m on record saying the team would have been better off tanking than making a playoff push and I still believe that to be true.
But the Magic’s defensive stability during the month of February, where they have posted a league-best defensive rating of 100.7 points per 100 possession, seems a more sustainable trend than past teases predicated on otherworldly offensive shooting percentages. That, along with the consistency of offensive focal points Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross, the team’s recent internal improvements (Aaron Gordon’s non-shooting contributions, Evan Fournier’s slowly climbing shooting percentages, Jonathan Isaac’s all-around play), the second-unit upgrades (addition by subtraction of a raw Mo Bamba, disappointing Jerian Grant, and unproductive Jonathon Simmons), and the flaws of their competition in the playoff race, should be enough to land the eighth-seed.
For as disheartening as the losses to the Bulls and Knicks were, and with a full understanding that Orlando should not have allowed these games to be anywhere near as close as they were, the Magic are a terrible last-second foul by Aaron Gordon, and a fourth quarter stop-the-bleeding bucket-against-the-Knicks-that-never-came away from being on an eight-game winning streak.
The Magic don’t have to wait long for an opportunity to make believers of us all.
With the Golden State Warriors coming to town on Thursday, Orlando is headed for the mother of all measuring stick games. An improbable win against the defending champs would help erase the bitter memory of the loss to the Knicks, the same way the win over the Raptors did to the loss to the Bulls.
Still just one game out of a playoff spot, the roller coaster ride that is the Orlando Magic season continues. The best and/or worst of the ups and downs are still to come.