By John Denton
April 8, 2017
ORLANDO – The Orlando Magic won’t be in the playoffs when they get underway next week, but their finger prints are all over the mad chase for the final few postseason spots in the Eastern Conference.
After playing Indiana on Saturday, the Magic will travel to Chicago on Sunday to face the Bulls on Monday. Indiana and Chicago came into Saturday locked into a tie for the seventh and eighth slots. Sitting one game back of the final playoff spot coming into Saturday was the Miami Heat, a team that the Magic beat in three of four meetings this season. If the Heat – the East’s hottest team since 2017 – miss the playoffs, they likely will have their play against the Magic to blame.
“When you have a young team that misses the playoffs you want them to feel playoff intensity and that’s what these games should feel like and that’s how we’re going to treat these games,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. “For 2017 and the spring, this is our playoffs. We’re going to go out there and compete as if it’s Game 1 of a first-round matchup.
“We’re going to play against a team with that type of intensity, so it’s a good measuring stick for us to see where we’re at and get a look at the habits we’ve build to this point,’’ Vogel added. “I’m looking hard as these two games (against Indiana and Chicago) to measure where we’re at going into the offseason.’’
Orlando closes the regular season on Wednesday at the Amway Center against the Detroit Pistons, which came into Saturday three games back of the Bulls and Pacers. Orlando has whipped Detroit in two of three meetings this season, including a 115-87 whipping on March 24 that sent the Pistons into a freefall from the playoff chase.
“It’s fun. During those late-season games you want to have a competitive spirit,’’ Magic guard Evan Fournier said. “When you are playing against teams that are fighting for a spot, that’s the best-case scenario when you are working on some stuff.’’
INDY VIBES STILL WEIRD FOR VOGEL: Including the meeting in the preseason, the Magic and Pacers played for a fifth time on Saturday night. Despite that familiarity, the game still gives Vogel very “weird’’ feelings.
Prior to becoming the Magic’s head coach in May, Vogel worked for the Pacers for nine seasons – the final 5 ½ as a head coach. He led the Pacers to the playoffs five times, including two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Vogel was admittedly nervous when the Magic played in Indiana on Nov. 14 and Jan. 1, and the strange sensations were still there when the Pacers played in Orlando in the preseason and again on Feb. 1. Asked leading up to Saturday’s game if it was normal yet facing his former franchise, Vogel sheepishly admitted that it is bizarre because of his close friendships with the Pacers coaches, players and staffers.
“No, not yet. Probably next year, but it’s still a little weird,’’ Vogel said of the game feeling normal. “I’ve got all my (Pacers) friends coming into town, but I’ll wait for the offseason until I see them. When I say my friends, I mean the coaching staff, the staff and the players that I coached there. I’m obviously still close with them there.’’
Pacers coach Nate McMillan was the lead assistant under Vogel in Indiana, while Dan Burke and Popeye Jones were also on the previous Pacers’ staff.
LESSONS IN LOSSES: Perpetually positive, Vogel feels that there are lessons to be learned in every game, including losses. That’s why in the days since Orlando’s 122-102 loss to Cleveland on Tuesday, Vogel has repeatedly pointed back to that game as a night from which the Magic can learn.
Orlando led by three points at the end of the first quarter and by two points at halftime before superstars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving took over the game – with their passing. James and Irving keyed Cleveland’s magnificent passing with a combined 13 assists in the third quarter – playmaking that led to a 43-20 scoring advantage in the period.
Vogel has practically begged his team to be more “instinctual’’ passers this season. “Trusting the pass,’’ Vogel said, is the way that the Magic can still thrive offensively even when defenses clamp down on them in close games. He continues to use the Cavs as an example of that.
“I preach it every day – even when we played a team like Cleveland that picks you apart with the pass,’’ Vogel said. “We write on the board that that’s the Cleveland lesson. They’re champions, but we pushed them last week and had a halftime lead in their building. We forced them to reach championship-level passing and we couldn’t handle it. When you reach that level (with the passing), not many teams can handle it. We preach paying with the pass every day.’’
Orlando came into Saturday night seventh in the NBA in assists over the previous 10-game stretch.
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