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Magic vs. Heat preview: Showdown in Miami

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The playoff push rolls into southern Florida in a potentially make-or-break contest

NBA: Miami Heat at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to meaningful basketball in March: the Orlando Magic edition!

You’re excused if you’ve forgotten exactly what this feels like; it’s been a long time between drinks for fans of the pinstripes.

A scintillating home win over the 76ers, one of the East’s elite, has positioned the Magic to be able to leap into the top 8 with a victory tonight over Miami. It’s a pressure filled game with higher stakes than any other they’ve played in recent memory.

They’ll be hoping to see more of the same from much of the roster. Evan Fournier was on fire and the focal point of the third-quarter surge that put Monday’s result beyond doubt. Michael Carter-Williams continued his career resurrection in a whirling dervish-like display. And Nikola Vucevic posted another comprehensive stat line as he took the honors in his individual matchup with the Prince of the Process, Joel Embiid. Get the same again from this trio and the Magic will be hard to beat.

With only eight games remaining in an incredibly tight playoff race every single result is obviously of importance, but this might be the season’s make or break contest. We tend to use the phrase ‘must-win’ in a less-than-literal sense, but this one is about as close as you can get. The odds of playoff basketball will shift dramatically in Orlando’s favor should they be able to seal the deal in South Florida.

Making the assignment tougher is the fact that the opposition ain’t no slouch. Miami have been playing excellent basketball since the calendar flipped to March, going 9-3 across the month’s first 12 contests. They’re done this primarily on the back of a strong defensive effort, a 105.5 rating that is good for 6th in the league in this time frame. Throw in some Dwyane Wade heroics and a rounding-into-form Goran Dragic and you have a late season surge that’s starting to look pretty sustainable.

The positive news for Orlando is that as good as Miami have been, the Magic have been better. In March they’ve ranked ahead of the Heat in terms of offensive rating (18th vs 19th), defensive rating (5th vs 6th), net rating (6th vs 7th), assist percentage (7th vs 9th), assist to turnover ratio (3rd vs 9th), defensive rebounding percentage (1st vs 26th), and turnover percentage (3rd vs 12th). It’s a healthy balance of advanced metrics in favor of the Magic.

Still, games have to be won on the hardwood. A 5-0 homestand has put the team within striking distance of the playoffs. But can the team win on the road? They’ve lost their last four away from Orlando and are only 13-22 as the visitor on the season, which is the worst mark of any of the playoff hopefuls. With only two home games left it’s an obstacle that will have to be overcome.

We’ve been saying this for a while now, but if the Magic are good enough they’ll get there. Now is the time to go out and prove it.

As always, be sure to join us in the game thread and dive into the discussion!