It’s a tight race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. As it stands, the Detroit Pistons have it, but that might not last. It’s going to be a battle between Detroit, the Miami Heat, the Washington Wizards, and the Orlando Magic to see who makes it to the postseason. The Magic are in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 27-33. It’s not great, but they’re close to making the cut – just half a game to be precise.
A month ago, nobody would’ve thought the Magic would even be talking about the playoffs… at least not the playoffs this year. The franchise hasn’t made it to the postseason since 2012. And when they were 10 games below .500 this season, we didn’t think things would be changing any time soon. But Orlando just dominated seven out of their last eight games (nearly all by double digits!) before the All Star break and started (kinda) looking like one of the hottest teams in the NBA. So began their hard push toward the playoffs…
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Let’s be honest. Typically, the Magic have nothing left to play for after the break – their postseason hopes have been crushed as of February for six straight seasons – but this time, they’re in the hunt! They’ve got 23 games left to make up for what they did earlier this season so hopefully they haven’t lost their momentum, though we can’t be sure based on Friday’s disappointing 110-109 loss to the lowly Bulls. Every game is going to matter. And they’re also going to need a little luck. The Magic have to hope the Pistons, Heat, and Wizards blow some (or several) of their final games. Another issue? The Magic have a lot of road games ahead of them…
So who’s leading this possibly postseason-bound Magic team? Which players will they have to rely on the most if they want to take this thing to the postseason?
First off, Nikola Vucevic, the Magic’s center, is averaging just over 20 points and 12 rebounds per game. That’s huge. He’s also a great passer and defender. The 7” Montenegrin might just be one of the most underrated big men in the NBA right now and he just added the three-point shot to his repertoire.
Vucevic is also pairing up nicely in the frontcourt with Aaron Gordon, the team’s 23-year-old power forward and one of the most athletic players in the league. The two have been together for five seasons and their chemistry is evident. He even shoots the three-ball better when Vucevic passes it to him (seriously). Gordon is averaging just over 15 points per game and the fans love his dunking ability.
Shooting guard Terrence Ross just put up 21 points against a seventh-seed Charlotte Hornets team, a game that ended in the Magic dominating by an absurd 38 points. Ross has been averaging 14.7 points on the season, but in the last ten games, he’s putting up more like 18.3. That’s a tremendous boost for the Magic. Ross says he knows every game from here on out is going to be a battle, “You’re going to run into teams who haven’t been playing for anything who are playing carefree now. And you’re going to face teams playing for something and needing to win. So, every game is going to be a tough one.’’
It’s also Evan Fournier’s first time in the playoff race with the Magic despite playing with them for five years. The shooting guard is averaging 16.3 points in the Magic’s past 10 games and he put up a team-high 22 points in that loss to the Bulls. He’s pumped about the prospect of a postseason appearance, “It’s totally different and a totally different mindset now … I missed it and it’s a fun part of the year, so we should all be excited now.’’
Another difference-maker this season? Second-year player Jonathan Isaac. His numbers are up from an average of 9.1 points per game to 13.4 in the last 10 games. That’s a lot of improvement. The 6’10” power forward’s rebounds have also increased, from 5.3 to 7.3. Kevin Durant recently praised Isaac for stretching the boundaries of the way big men are playing the game. The 21-year-old Isaac missed most of his rookie season due to injuries but he’s developed offensively and learned to shoot confidently this season. Too bad he only put up four points on Friday…
Watching the Magic dominate in that five-game winning streak before the All Star break, they showed efficiency, chemistry, and balance. Ross, Vucevic, Gordon, Issac, and Fournier all averaged at least 15 points per game during that streak. They were winning road games and playing better than they have in years. So… can they get that momentum back and reach their first playoff game in recent memory? We’ll give that one a definite maybe.
The good news? The Magic have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league.
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