Now this sure is fun!
We’re about to flip the calendar to April and the Orlando Magic are, honest to goodness, still playing high-intensity games that will have a meaningful impact on the Eastern Conference playoff race. In fact, thanks to some sweet home-cooking and a superb comeback against divisional foe Miami, the team finds itself currently occupying the eighth seed. Mission accomplished. Right?
Well, not quite. At least not yet. The remaining games ledger is down to single digits but there is still a lot of work to be done. Once again let’s take a look at the field, starting in Central Florida.
Orlando Magic: 37-38, currently in 8th
At this juncture of the season we are acutely aware of the importance of every single game. With only seven remaining on the schedule that might seem obvious, but it’s no longer even just the results of the contests the Magic are in that matter - it’s (just about) everything league-wide.
When Detroit failed to beat both Miami and Brooklyn a fortnight ago, it was Orlando’s odds for playoff participation that took the greatest hit. The Nets getting back-to-back wins on the road last week made a smaller dent, but it hurt all the same to see the Magic’s chances declining even in the midst of their own winning streak. And let’s not even start talking about Miami and Charlotte both managing recently to beat more fancied opposition.
Because of the tightness of the race, Orlando cannot simply rely on their own performance to help them fulfill the promise of the postseason push. Instead, almost every night the NBA schedule will feature at least one other game with some impact on the Magic’s position. For those of us riding this hard, we truly have entered a period of League Pass channel flipping and scoreboard watching.
So what do the Magic need to do during the run home? Firstly, they need to continue their recent stretch of defensive dominance; for a side that can struggle on offense this must be their calling card. Secondly, they must continue to get strong play from leaders like Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier, as well as some more unexpected contributions from elsewhere on the roster. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they need to circle the games against the Pistons and the Hornets and show up ready to play from the opening tip. Nab those two wins and suddenly the whole thing seems a little easier.
Six straight Ws have the Magic in an enviable position in the race for one of the three final playoff spots. ESPN have the team’s odds close to 74%, while FiveThirtyEight have just nudged the figure north of 80%. Both projections demonstrate that Orlando now carry an expectation; the one-time underdogs will have to display the bark and bite necessary to make it into the postseason yard.
Brooklyn Nets: 38-37, currently in 6th
Although they continue to own the most difficult remaining schedule in the league, the Nets won’t go away. Their Western Conference-heavy road trip has been as brutal as advertised, although they managed to salvage it -- and possibly their season -- with back-to-back resilient wins against the Kings and Lakers. In Sacramento they incredibly stormed back from 25 down at the final break to win on a Rondae Hollis-Jefferson drive at the buzzer, following that up a couple of night’s later with the mathematical elimination of the Lakers from playoff contention in a D’Angelo Russell revenge game. Both FiveThirtyEight and ESPN currently have their playoff odds hovering around the 80% mark, a figure which is actually down a little after Orlando’s recent surge. The Brooklyn faithful will be hoping that some of their remaining opponents start resting key players, which is actually a strong likelihood for sides like Milwaukee and Toronto (who account for three of their remaining seven games). Their final tilt of the season against Miami might be one that Magic fans watch through their fingers.
Detroit Pistons: 37-37, currently in 7th
The Pistons have slowed down a little of late, and it’s been just enough to cast some doubt over the certainty of their position within the eight. Although they might not be facing any legitimate championship contenders on the run home, starting tonight against the Magic they do have six in a row against either playoff hopefuls or certainties. They can also expect to see some opponents at their most desperate, such as Orlando (hopefully) and Charlotte. In their favor though is the fact that they play the majority of their remaining contests at home (having just finished off a tough five-game road trip), along with a soft final pair of games against teams well below .500. Projections still have them pegged as the surest thing out of the teams remaining in the mix, but stranger things have happened.
Miami Heat: 36-38, currently in 9th
Boy it sure feels good to beat the Heat, particularly when the stakes are high. Miami are now significantly less than an even money chance to make the eight, and they’ll need to play some good basketball down the stretch if they’re going to get in. Giving them a shot is the fact that they’ve got three games left against teams actively hoping to lose, as well as a handful that could be made easier by opposition players resting. The Dwyane Wade retirement tour is also in full swing, so don’t be surprised to see him pop up in the highlights a few times yet before all is said and done. Personally I’m of the belief that the postseason only needs one Floridian representative and, to be honest, I can think of a better candidate.
Charlotte Hornets: 35-39, currently in 10th
Another team that will not die, the Hornets are currently riding a four-game winning streak that has kept them close enough to make this a legitimate five-team race. Kemba Walker has absolutely recaptured his early season form, accounting for one of their recent wins by out-dueling Kyrie Irving and dropping 18 fourth quarter points as they stormed home against the Celtics. He was arguably even better against the Spurs, scoring 11 in overtime and falling one rebound shy of a triple-double in another dominant performance. Throw in one of the most absurd buzzer-beaters you’ll ever see, courtesy of a Jeremy Lamb heave off a broken play, and one might start to worry that this feel-good story could come to fruition. They have a tough, road-heavy closing schedule so it remains a very long shot (projections put it around an 18% likelihood), but things could yet (tie)break in their favor. Magic fans will, of course, be hoping they’re dead and buried before game 82.
Washington Wizards: 31-45, currently in 11th
Not yet mathematically eliminated, but it’s safe to say that the players may already be falling over themselves to book the necessary flights for their offseason vacation.
Repeat after me: if the Magic are good enough, they’ll be playing in the postseason. A six-game winning streak has provided them with as strong a platform as possible for the season’s final two weeks, but they’ve still got to take care of business when it counts. Let’s hope they can.
Buckle in and enjoy the next fourteen days!