NEW ORLEANS – The Orlando Magic’s stirring stretch of three straight victories and five wins over the last six games has done more than just sling-shot the franchise back into the playoff race in the Eastern Conference.
It has guaranteed that veteran players such as Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and D.J. Augustin and youngsters Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Khem Birch and others are guaranteed of playing meaningful games down the stretch of the season. With the Magic missing the playoffs each of the past six years – the longest stretch in franchise history – being in the race this late in the season is something of a new phenomenon that the Magic are savoring immensely.
``Playing meaningful games, it’s everything,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who has suffered through four losing seasons previously in Orlando. ``I mean, except for the year with (former Magic head coach) Scott (Skiles in the 2015-16 season), we’ve never played meaningful games in March.
``It’s really, really hard mentally when you get up every day and have to have to just get out there (with nothing to play for),’’ Fournier added. ``Now, we’re competitors and once you’re out there, you’re going to give everything. But, it’s just nice to be in it at this point.’’
The Magic (25-32) are in it after they ripped off three straight wins over Minnesota, Milwaukee and Atlanta. That three-game winning spree tied their longest streak of the season, equaling the mark set from Nov. 14-18 after wins over Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Lakers and New York.
Taking it even further back, Orlando had won five of six games, allowing it to make up major ground in the race for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Orland has jumped over Washington (24-32) in the standings and they head into Monday just 1 ½ games behind the slumping Miami Heat (25-29) and Detroit (25-29) for the No. 8 spot.
``We’re playing really well defensively, and offensively we’re moving the ball and playing together, so I’d say so,’’ Vucevic said when asked if he thought this was the Magic’s best stretch of games all season. ``Hopefully we can keep it up these last two games before the (NBA All-Star) break. That would be huge for us.’’
Orlando’s next chance to grow its winning streak and shrink the gap between it and the top eight in the East standings will be on Tuesday in New Orleans against the Pelicans (25-32). After that, the Magic will play arch-nemesis Charlotte – a team that has whipped them 13 consecutive times – on Thursday at the Amway Center prior to breaking for the NBA All-Star Game.
Between now and then, Augustin said, there can be no letdown for an Orlando team that suddenly finds itself playing for something meaningful.
``We’re playing for something and we’re trying to make the playoffs and we can’t make any excuses,’’ said Augustin, whose Magic gutted their way through a difficult back-to-back set of games in Milwaukee and Atlanta on Saturday and Sunday. ``We don’t want to look back and say, `Dang, I wish we would have done this or fought a little harder.’
``I mean, it feels great right now, but at the same time we can’t get comfortable because we’re still behind and we’re still not in the place that we want to be,’’ Augustin added. ``So, we’ve got to keep fighting until the end of the season. Hopefully, we can fight our way and earn our way into the playoffs.’’
Magic coach Steve Clifford, who took over in late May, has been steadfast in his belief that the squad has enough talent, toughness and togetherness to reach the postseason for the first time since 2012 – when he was an assistant coach in Orlando under former head coach Stan Van Gundy. He felt that way even though the Magic were long since out of the playoff race by the 57-game mark over the previous seven seasons with dismal records of 16-41 (2012-13), 17-40 (2013-14), 18-39 (2014-15), 25-32 (2015-16), 21-36 (2016-17) and 18-39 (2017-18).
Clifford talked to his team a week ago and, in essence, told the squad that the stretch of games before the All-Star break would determine if it would be playing for something meaningful in March and April. The squad has responded to the challenge, getting big boosts from Vucevic, Isaac, Augustin, Terrence Ross and others of late.
``I don’t know how you can gauge belief, but this is as well as we’ve played at both ends of the floor,’’ said Clifford, who recently relayed a story told to him by former Magic coach Brian Hill about how focused teams can rack up victories before and after the All-Star break and trade deadline. ``You go all the way back to the game at Houston (on Jan. 27), we’ve really put two weeks and a few games here where we just have had more purpose and where we don’t give as many possessions away.’’
The Magic being in the playoff race should do wonders for the likes of Isaac, Orlando’s prized second-year forward. It’s probably no coincidence that the team’s best stretch has come as he’s played the best basketball of his young career. On Sunday in Atlanta, Isaac tied a career high with five blocked shots – an effort that gave him six consecutive games with at least two blocks. In his past 11 games, he’s scored in double digits seven times, he’s set his career high in rebounds twice and he’s blocked at least two shots nine times.
Isaac said it would likely mean everything to his development as a young player to show up to the arena every night knowing the Magic were in a must-win spot because of the chase for a playoff spot.
``I think it would be great for a young guy like me having us get to a playoff spot to be able to see what that playoff (intensity) would be like,’’ said Isaac, who has swatted 17 shots in Orlando’s previous six games. ``It’s so good for our development to be playing meaningful games and we just have to make sure that we approach it the same way every day.’’
Gordon, who at 23 years old refers to himself as ``a young vet,’’ wishes he would gotten the same chance that Isaac is getting now. In Gordon’s first four NBA seasons, the Magic won just 25, 35, 29 and 25 games in totality, meaning the team was basically just playing out the string with little on the line by January. That is definitely different now, and young players such as himself, Isaac and others should benefit.
``The bigger the game, the quicker you develop. Period,’’ Gordon said emphatically.
Like Fournier and Vucevic, Augustin has suffered through the struggles in Orlando in recent years and he desperately wants to feel the intensity of another playoff race over the final two months of the season. He knows full well that Orlando has positioned itself to make a run – it has statistically the fourth-easiest schedule remaining and 12 games remaining against teams sitting outside of the playoffs – but it’s up to the squad to maintain the focus and hunger that got it in this position.
``I’ve been in the league 11 years and I’ve been on teams that have won, so the atmosphere and energy are just different when you are winning, point-blank, period,’’ Augustin said. ``It feels really great right now, but if we want to feel like this the rest of the season, we’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing.’’
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