Moving Up to East’s Seventh Seed a Goal for Orlando Magic

by John Denton

ORLANDO - While many of the 22 teams at Disney World for the NBA’s restart will be using the eight remaining ``seeding games’’ to play their way into shape before the playoffs, the Orlando Magic have no such luxury and know full well that their postseason fate could be determined by a fast start.

At 30-35 and eighth in the Eastern Conference, the Magic hit Disney World last week with a couple of definitive goals in mind: The eight regular-season games remaining will be their most defining ones of the season and they want to use them to hopefully make an upward surge in the East standings.

Even though there are a host of variables at play in this NBA restart – teams were off for more than four months, homecourt advantage has been virtually killed and players will have to get adjusted to playing before no fans – the Magic understand that excuses won’t fly when their regular season restarts on July 31 against the Brooklyn Nets (2:30 p.m., Disney Field House). Brooklyn, after all is the team just ahead of them in the standings at 30-34 and the Magic desperately want to overtake the injury-and-illness-ravaged Nets for the No. 7 seed.

``I would say that’s one of our main goals right now,’’ Magic forward Wes Iwundu said of his team wanting to overtake a Brooklyn team that certainly seems vulnerable with six players most likely missing because of injuries or illness. ``It’s about coming out from the start really strong. In practice, as a team, guys’ focus and attention to detail have been pretty good. Overall, Coach (Steve Clifford) has been pleased with us, so we’re off to a good start so far. We’ve just got to keep that momentum going into the season.’’

The Magic, the first team to report to Disney’s sequestered camp-style environment last Tuesday, held their seventh practice session on Thursday morning. Orlando has progressed to the point where Clifford is comfortable holding five-on-five scrimmages – a session on Thursday that included forward Jonathan Isaac on a limited basis, the coach said. Isaac, one of just two NBA players ranked in the NBA’s top 15 in blocked shots and steals a game, is attempting to make a comeback from a sprained left knee injury suffered on Jan. 1.

Point guard Markelle Fultz, who reported to the Disney campus earlier in the week, has yet to practice with the team as he must be quarantined for 48 hours before joining his teammates. Fultz, Orlando’s starter for 59 games at point guard this season, missed the Magic’s first five workouts because he was tending to a personal matter that was excused by the team. The team’s hope is that he could practice in the coming days.

Despite the continued absence of Fultz, Clifford has said he feels that his team is ahead of where he thought it would be at this point because of the intense amount of individual skill and conditioning work that the squad put in prior to venturing to Disney last week. It’s important to keep building on that momentum, while also avoiding injuries, Clifford said.

``Teams are different, and because now there is no homecourt advantage, those eight games, to a certain degree, can almost be an extended training camp for them. But, then, for teams like us who are still playing to get in, they are the most important eight games of the year,’’ said Clifford, whose Magic will play tune-up scrimmages against the Clippers (July 22, 3 p.m.), Lakers (July 25, noon) and Nuggets (July 27, 7 p.m.) to get themselves ready for the eight ``seeding games.’’

``So, we’ve got to get as organized as we can, as in rhythm as we can and that’s all you can do right now,’’ Clifford added. ``It’s definitely a different type of challenge and it’s going to be hard to know exactly where we are until we start playing.’’

Before the NBA was forced to stop play on March 11 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Magic seemed poised for another late-season that could have allowed them to once again soar up the standings. Orlando won three in a row and eight of 12 prior to the stoppage in play and it had one of the league’s easiest remaining schedules (.468 combined win percentage of their original 17 remaining opponents).

Last season, the Magic feasted on an easy closing schedule and went 22-9 down the stretch to grab the East’s No. 7 seed. (Coincidentally, the Magic and Nets finished tied at 42-40 last season, but Brooklyn got the No. 6 seed by virtue of winning the season series. Orlando is already up 2-0 on Brooklyn this season and clinch the season series tiebreaker with a victory on July 31.)

The NBA tried to keep strength of schedule in mind when remaking the slate for the restart. Thus, of the 22 teams now training at Disney World, Orlando has statistically the sixth-easiest schedule (a .551 combined win percentage of the eight foes). In addition to two showdowns against Brooklyn, the Magic will face six teams already in the top eight in their respective conferences. The Nets, who play just four playoff teams the rest of the way, have the third-easiest remaining schedule.

The difference between the seventh and eighth seeds could be enormous for the Magic on a couple of fronts.

First, climbing to seventh would allow the Magic to avoid a potential first-round matchup with the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, a historically dominant team this season that toppled Orlando in all four meetings previously. Toronto or Boston, two candidates for the No. 2 seed, have also had the upper hand on the Magic this season, but both would pose better matchups for Orlando.

Toronto has statistically the toughest remaining schedule, while Boston has the fifth-easiest slate ahead. The Raptors, a potential first-round opponent of the Magic for a second straight season, must play the Lakers, Heat, Celtics, Grizzlies, Bucks, Sixers, Nuggets and Magic in their eight remaining games. All eight of those teams are among the top eight in their respective conferences as of now. Toronto does get Orlando on the second night of a back-to-back set of games on Aug. 5 – a night after the Magic tangle with the Indiana Pacers.

Then, there’s this factor in the back of the minds of the Magic: If the ninth seed – the Washington Wizards in this instance – finish within four games of the eighth seed, a play-in series will be necessitated under a new NBA rule put in place just for the restart. The seventh seed, however, would be spared from such a scenario, giving the Magic even more incentive to climb in the standings.

Clifford, who guided the Magic to their first playoff appearance since 2012 last spring, wants his team to avoid a mindset of trying to ease back into the season because of the importance of the games to his squad’s playoff hopes.

``There’s a big difference between seventh and eighth because then there’s no chance of a play-in,’’ said Clifford, who recently called the upcoming schedule ``our most important eight games of the season.’’

``We want to be in the playoffs, that’s where it all starts and that’s what the regular season is for,’’ Clifford continued. ``So, being seventh versus eighth is a big deal because then you know for sure that there can’t be a play-in game.’’

D.J. Augustin, a veteran of 11 NBA seasons, feels that there could potentially be more upsets in the playoffs than ever before because of the uniqueness of this season. With teams having been off for four months and at different levels based on injuries, illness and conditioning points, Augustin feels lower-seeded teams such as the Magic could be in line to stun higher-seeded foes once the playoffs begin. After all, homecourt advantage – usually a massive factor in back-and-forth playoff series – will be null and void with teams playing in neutral environments on Disney’s campus.

``It’s going to be crazy because there are so many things that are going to go into it,’’ Augustin said of the expected chaos in the NBA restart to the season. ``We’re not playing in front of fans, which is very important for us as players because we feed off the fans. No homecourt advantage, everybody has been sitting out for three (months) and you don’t know who’s been doing what (in terms of staying in shape), so it’s going to be crazy. I know a lot of people have the Lakers and the Bucks favored, but it’s going to be crazy and wild and no one knows what’s going to happen at the end of this situation. I really don’t know what’s going to happen, but I feel everybody has a chance and an opportunity to do something special and surprise a lot of people.’’

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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