Having the Right Mindset Key to Finishing Regular Season Strong

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Not only did last spring’s 22-9 closing kick save the Orlando Magic’s season and get them into the playoffs, that stirring stretch could very well pay more dividends with the team in a similar predicament this season.

With 27 games left to play, the Magic consider themselves once again in win-to-get-in mode for the playoffs even though they currently sit in the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed. If Orlando has designs on potentially improving its seeding and doing some damage once the playoffs come around, they know that they must conjure the same sort of desperation and must-win hunger that they used last season en route to the postseason.

``Our mindset right now is that we have to play our way in,’’ said Magic guard Terrence Ross, who was a driving force on last season’s team that pushed its way into the playoffs. ``We have to get back to that level. Everybody has their heads on right, so I think we’ll be fine. We have to look at it as we’re not in and we’ve got to play our way in, take it possession by possession, and we need as many games as we can get get.’’

The Magic (24-31) hope that their push to another playoff appearance starts Friday night when they face all-star guard Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks (33-22) at the Amway Center (tip time: 7 p.m.; TV: Fox Sports Florida). The Mavs have been one of the NBA’s surprise teams this season behind the stellar, do-everything play of Doncic, who ranks sixth in the NBA in scoring (28.9), third in assists (8.7) and 17thin rebounding (9.5) while compiling 12 triple-doubles.

Further complicating matters for the Magic is the fact that Dallas surrounds Doncic – who ranks second in the league in a usage rate statistic that shows how much he has the ball in his hands – with stellar shooting to keep opposing defenses honest. The Mavs rank first in the NBA in made 3-pointers per game (15.2), third in attempts per game (41), fifth in 3-point accuracy (37.1 percent) and third in scoring (116.4).

``The decision, simply, is how much to help?’’ Magic coach Steve Clifford said of potentially sending double teams at Doncic. ``Are you going to come with a second defender? And, if you do, are you going to commit to the total double team or not? In our league, that’s really the decision. With him, you’ve got to mix up the coverages because he plays like he’s 35-year-old. If he knows what the coverage is, he’s going to have a better chance. To be effective, you have to mix things up.’’

Orlando was hoping to have D.J. Augustin back for Friday’s game, but the veteran point guard suffered a setback to his knee injury in practice on Thursday. Augustin, who has been out since Jan. 15 with ``bone irritation’’ in his left knee, had been targeting Friday’s game for a return before a collision in practice left him listed as questionable to play against the Mavs.

Like last season, when they won five straight prior to the break for the NBA All-Star Game, the Magic won two games in a row before the break this time around. Last season, the Magic’s stretch run started ominously when they were edged on the final possession of the game by the Chicago Bulls.

At the time last February, that home defeat dropped the Magic three games back in the loss column of the East’s final playoff spot. Orlando would eventually dig its way out of the No. 10 seed by winning its final nine home games and playing its best basketball of the season.

Clifford said last season’s playoff berth was made more special by the fact that the Magic won their way into the postseason and didn’t have to rely on others to lose. Clifford thinks that experience will help this season’s team in its push to get back to the postseason.

``I think the whole thing was a learning experience and I think last year was invaluable for the team that we have this year,’’ Clifford said. ``The majority of our guys really haven’t had a lot of experiences of playing on playoff teams. So, I think the whole thing from last season is valuable for us.’’

The upcoming schedule could play into the Magic’s favor in their attempt to improve their seeding for the playoffs. Orlando’s remaining 27 opponents have a combined winning percentage of just .464 – the third-worst in the NBA and the second-worst in the Eastern Conference. The Magic play 17 games against teams with losing records – a promising sign considering that they are 19-7 on the season against foes with losing marks. After Friday’s game against Dallas, the Magic will play 15 of their next 18 games against foes who currently have losing records.

Brooklyn, which sit two games ahead of the Magic in the standings in the No. 7 spot, has a much more difficult remaining schedule, according to records compiled thus far. Not only have the Nets played two fewer games than the Magic, they are tied with Cleveland and Memphis for the most remaining road games (16). Brooklyn, which could be without star point guard Kyrie Irving (shoulder injury) the rest of the season, plays six of its first seven games after the break on the road with the exception being Monday’s game at Barclays Center against the Magic. The Nets, who lost earlier this season to the Magic in Orlando, also have difficult road games remaining against Milwaukee, Boston, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Clippers.

Nikola Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic, said his team can’t drop its guard and feel like it is a lock to be in the playoffs. After all, Vucevic said, the goal for the season is to not only make the postseason, but also put together a deep run once there.

``I think we have enough motivation and I don’t think it should change our approach too much (that they currently sit in the No. 8 seed), and if anything, we should enjoy being in this position and try to get to the playoffs and do even more,’’ said Vucevic, who is once again Orlando’s leader in scoring (19 points per game) and rebounding (10.8 boards per game). ``This is what we’ve wanted, and this is what we’ve talked about. Obviously, we wish our record was a little better, but we are in a playoff spot right now and it’s on us to make sure that we keep it and try to climb up a spot or two in the standings. There’s a lot of basketball to be played and we have to approach every game with seriousness.’’

Ross, who has averaged 13.4 points over 53 games thus far, said the Magic’s confidence is buoyed by the fact that it came through in the clutch last season when the team had to have it to get into the playoffs. Like last season, Ross wants to see the Magic win their way into the playoffs and not have to depend on others to lose.

``We know how special (last season’s run) was, but it’s super hard to do that and we’re trying to play from ahead right now,’’ Ross said. ``Keep the right mindset, keep improving every game and doing that will help us as much as it did last year.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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