Thursday, April 2, 2009

Getting into that Playoff mindset

Last night Orlando got its wake-up call.

A mediocre, underachieving Raptors team snuck up and out-efforted the Magic for a 99-95 win. Orlando was good enough to rally in the fourth quarter and make the game interesting. And on most nights, it has been enough -- especially during this most recent six-game winning streak.

Good sign the Magic think they can win any game as long as they have a chance in the fourth quarter. Bad sign they think they only need to keep it close entering the fourth quarter to win.

Best part is, the usually cantankerous Stan Van Gundy was in a surprisingly good mood after the game. Lesson learned?

If there is one thing that I believe Van Gundy can do it is managing an 82-game season and getting his players ready for the postseason. He was fantastic at that in his two and a half years in Miami (despite the slow starts).

Orlando is an elite team now. The Magic know they are not going to have their best stuff on every night. 82-game seasons are loooooong.

But now comes a question to this young, relatively postseason untested team. Can they turn the intensity switch on for 48 minutes? Orlando has proven it is good enough to top mediocre teams with 20 real minutes of effort.

This weekend will be a test of the Magic's playoff mettle. Cleveland rolls into town Friday and Orlando travels to Atlanta on Saturday. Those are two playoff-tested teams in the top four of the Eastern Conference.

It is clear to me that this Magic team knows how to get up for the big games. In this six-game winning streak, the only win against a winning team came against the Celtics. And in that game, Orlando played some of its best offense and was able to hold on for the win.

To be sure, coasting efforts like the ones they put on recently against Milwaukee, New York (twice) and Toronto last night, will not cut it once the Playoffs arrive.

But I think the Magic know that. It is hard mentally to expend large amounts of energy in virtually meaningless games. Especially when you know you have the physical test of the Playoffs ahead of you. Is anyone surprised the team took a late season slump?

Yes, Orlando is fighting for the second seed in the playoffs. And I do believe that is important to this team because of its deep postseason (2nd round and later) inexperience.

But the Magic know which teams they can beat and which teams they need to really focus in on to top. Toronto was not one of those teams and Orlando took the fall for its sloppy, uninspired play.

Better to learn that lesson now than to have to teach it in the playoffs.

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