With a tough road trip in the books, can the Orlando Magic use December’s schedule to solidify their playoff credentials?
If you had asked any Orlando Magic fan if they would have taken being in a playoff position to begin December, there is little doubt they would have.
At 11-12, the Magic are holding onto the eighth and final spot in the playoff race, and they look a much more assured outfit as well. First-year head coach Steve Clifford is already working wonders to change the culture of the organization.
More than that though, they now have the kind of players that allow them to stay competitive in essentially every game they play, and although they rank 24th in offensive rating (106.1), the way in which they move the ball (26.2 assists per game, good for sixth in the league) has them looking like a better offensive unit than we expected.
Center Nikola Vucevic is having an All-Star level campaign so far, while Terrence Ross has to be in the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year honors. Aaron Gordon has shown glimpses of the talent that earned him an extension during the offseason, and second-year big Jonathan Isaac has as much potential as anybody on the roster.
All of this is well and good, but heading into December, can the Magic not only get back above .500 again, but also solidify a postseason spot for themselves heading into 2019? Looking back over their prolonged rebuild, this month has not always been a happy hunting ground for them.
In fact, if the Magic weren’t already destined for the lottery, December was usually the month in which this was confirmed. The worst run they’ve had over the last six seasons in this month is a horrible 4-11.
This happened twice, essentially knocking their playoff ambitions on the head last year, but also back in 2013-14 as well. In fact, only once during their rebuild have the Magic had a winning record in December, and that was in 2015-16, when they went 10-5.
Although they came into that particular festive period 9-8, they would go on to lose the first five games of January to wipe out all of the good work that they built throughout the tail end of 2015.
What is in store this month then, and can the Magic do what they have rarely been able to at this time of year and have a winning month that sets them up well for the run into the All-Star break?
The team will have seven games at home and six on the road this coming month, with two of those games away from the Amway Center worth talking about in particular. On Dec. 13, they take on the Chicago Bulls, and two nights later is a game against the Utah Jazz.
Both contests will take place in Mexico, with a road game against the Dallas Mavericks coming before that trip. Another negative for the Magic is the fact both of these are viewed as “home games” for them too.
Although none of their opponents can be considered close to elite right now, meaning Orlando has nothing to fear, the logistics of simply getting to Mexico and back need to be factored in.
Also worth considering are the various media appearances and community outreach events that are sure to take place, as the NBA continues trying to grow in markets outside of the U.S. Of the three opponents they’ll be facing before and during the trip, only the Bulls could be considered a probable win.
The Mavericks will be at home and have a star in the making in Luka Doncic, while the Jazz, although disappointing this season so far, are bound to figure things out and start winning more games sooner rather than later.
After the game against Orlando, the Jazz will enter a particularly brutal stretch. There is no question they’ll be looking for a win down in Mexico.
If that mid-month trip is cause for concern then what are some of the more positive aspects of Orlando’s upcoming slate of games? Well, they’ve just come back from a five-game road trip in which they went 2-3, but there was so much to like about their play.
Of the upcoming 13 games in the month, only five opponents are currently over .500. That may change with the likes of the Charlotte Hornets and San Antonio Spurs right around that mark, but it is still a positive.
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The Magic are tied for second-most close games played so far this season (15), and have won eight of those games that were within five points or less heading into the last five minutes. They also boast the sixth-best defensive rating (98.0) during this time frame.
With encouraging numbers like this, it is likely that they will come out on the right side of some of the close games against opponents with a similar record. This was not the case last year, as they ended the campaign having won 34.1 percent of those games they were in (41), the third-worst mark in the league.
Another boost for the Magic is the fact they have Christmas Day off. This isn’t surprising given that they are not exactly national television darlings, but it does mean they will play at home to the Heat on Dec. 23, and then not take to the court again until the Dec. 26, again at home, against the Phoenix Suns.
Other than that, a tough three-game stretch to end the calendar year against the Toronto Raptors (home), Detroit Pistons (home) and Charlotte Hornets on New Year’s Eve (away) awaits them. It would not be surprisingly to see the Magic go 0-3 during this period, ending the year on a low.
Really though, there is the potential for the Orlando Magic to come through December with a record above .500 and enter 2019 with the belief that they can make the playoffs. The schedule allows for this, as does their newfound ability to remain competitive in every situation they are put in.