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It’s time for one of the Orlando Magic’s biggest games of the decade

In a Florida showdown, Orlando squares off against Miami with the eighth seed up for grabs

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

Orlando Magic fans have been waiting a long time for a game like this.

Meaningful basketball in spring has been an achievement in itself this season for a team that has long been going in circles during their rebuild. But tonight is the night when meaningful basketball for the Magic essentially becomes a playoff game.

Trailing the Heat by a half-game for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, the Magic have an opportunity to move ahead of Miami, take hold of the head-to-head tiebreaker, and control their own destiny.

It’s an opening act for the NBA Playoffs, putting Florida, for one night only, at the center of the basketball world.

“It’s going to be really, really hard and a dogfight,’” Evan Fournier told reporters after the Magic’s win over the Sixers on Monday.

Some have said that the dogfight with the Heat is possibly the Magic’s biggest game since the Dwight Howard era. Remove the word “possibly” from that sentence because it is not needed. This game, without question, is the biggest game since the Dwight Howard era.

Saying that a game in March between two sub-.500 teams is one of the Magic’s most important games of the decade might sound comical to those outside of Orlando. Yet, it is no exaggeration. By my highly scientific calculations, this is the 13th most important game of the decade for the Orlando Magic, trailing the six games they played against the Celtics in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals and the six games they played against the Atlanta Hawks in the 2011 first round. (The Magic, during the 2010 playoffs, were never threatened by the Bobcats or Hawks. During the 2012, with Howard out with a back injury, they never stood a chance in the series against the Pacers. Therefore, no single game had the importance that Tuesday’s Magic/Heat game holds).

There hasn’t been a game approaching a playoff-like magnitude until now.

While it’s not exactly a play-in game, a win will significantly increase the Magic’s chances of finishing in the top eight in the East. For a team that has the third longest playoff drought in the NBA, a team whose fanbase needs some concrete proof of progress and hope, a team whose risky trade deadline decisions put pressure on the team to qualify for the playoffs, no organization is more in need of a postseason berth than the Magic.

By keeping their free-agents-to-be Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross at the deadline, and by sacrificing a large percentage of their draft lottery hopes, the Magic went all-in on making the playoffs this season. Coming so close but failing to do so would be a critical setback.

One of the teams looking to deny the Magic by having postseason basketball played in a more southern part of Florida, is their intrastate “rival.” Truth is, the two teams over the last 30 years are usually closer in distance than they have in the standings. The paths of the Magic and Heat have rarely crossed during games of importance at this stage of the season. Typically, when the Magic were up, the Heat were down, and vice versa. Outside of the 1997 NBA Playoffs, of course, when Penny Hardaway put on a masterful performance in a losing effort…

”It’s cool to see them playing at this level,” Dwyane Wade told The Sun Sentinel. “They’ve had years where they’ve started off well, the years that we’ve been OK, and then they kind of fizzled out. But they’ve been finding a way to stay in it. Even when it seemed like they were going to go away, they haven’t gone away.”

Now they’re here.

Orlando fans have suffered through the Rob Hennigan era, saw Jacque Vaughn stay too long and Scott Skiles leave too soon, watched Victor Oladipo become an All-Star in another jersey, and seen the Magic press reset on their rebuild so many times that the button fell off.

The organization, the players and the fans need the playoffs. And they begin tonight in Miami.