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What lessons can the Magic learn in their final four games of the season?

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 5/10/2021 Roy Parry, Orlando Sentinel

The NBA regular season is barreling toward its conclusion.

Teams are maneuvering for playoff position — and, in some cases, better lottery odds — with players resting and recovering amid the grind of the league’s condensed 72-game season brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Orlando Magic fall into the non-playoff category. They have four games left on their schedule, and yet there are still important lessons to be learned for a team that is looking to build cohesion and chemistry amid its roster rebuild.

Over its last four games, Orlando will face three teams in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. That starts Tuesday in Milwaukee, where the Bucks (43-24) are making a push for the No. 2 seed. The game tips off at 9 p.m. and will be broadcast on Bally Sports Florida.

The Magic (21-47) then will face the Hawks in Atlanta on Thursday before playing the 76ers in Philadelphia on Friday and Sunday.

The fifth-place Hawks are locked in a battle with the Knicks, Heat and Celtics for the 4-6 playoff seeds. The Hawks and Heat trail the fourth-place Knicks by one game, with the Celtics two games back.

The 76ers, meanwhile, are trying to sew up the No. 1 seed in the conference. They led the Nets by three games and the Bucks by 3.5 games as of Monday.

Magic coach Steve Clifford likes the tests those opponents will provide.

“There’s so many ways that you can look at this, but to me, it’s the best thing,” Clifford said of the closing stretch of games. “I think that being challenged like this and playing elite teams that are playing for something will be a good challenge for our guys. It’s something that I think we’ll have the right attitude about.”

Winning obviously is the ultimate goal, and that likely will take some time as the Magic hit some bumpy roads in their rebuild. A seemingly endless series of injuries have contributed to the roster changes this season — leading to a franchise-record 32 different starting lineups so far.

It’s also important for the Magic’s young players, like rookies Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton, to close out the season with some positive play and build momentum into the offseason.

And while he’s looking for some playing combinations, Clifford also wants his team to develop a foundation for how it plays, where it consistently brings the same intensity and focus to each game.

“I don’t think it’s any secret of where we’re at and the direction that we’ve taken, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t play hard and play with purpose every night,” Clifford said.

That largely was lacking in Sunday’s 128-96 loss to the Timberwolves in a game where the Magic fell further and further behind as it progressed. Minnesota led by as many as 43 points in the third quarter.

“Our guys were disappointed in the way that we played last night,” Clifford said.

Clifford said another challenge is to get players to remain committed, especially through long stretches of losing. Of course, it’s an easier process when your team wins 53 or 54 games, Clifford said, because there’s more winning than losing.

He used the Magic’s two previous seasons as examples.

In 2018-19, Orlando was 20-31 after 51 games, then went 22-9 the rest of the season to secure the seventh seed in the East.

“Those guys had a belief and they fought all the way back, and that’s not easy to do,” Clifford said.

Last season, the team had to overcome the loss of Jonathan Isaac to a knee injury on Jan. 1 as it made its second straight playoff appearance.

“After JI’s injury, it was a struggle to figure out how to play, and yet when you look at right before play stoppage last year, they had a belief in each other in that we could continue to get better,” Clifford said. “So that’s one of the things that you don’t want to lose. It’s hard to establish within an organization, a pride or belief in each other and what you’re doing, and I think that’s what those veteran guys are trying to do.”

Like shooting guard Terrence Ross.

While he’s missed the past 12 games because of back spasms and doesn’t appear likely to play this week, Ross is using his experiences and leadership to help guide a roster with eight players 23 or younger. Ross continues to talk to them about how to approach these final games.

“They’re going to go through a lot of highs and lows, this being one of them,” Ross said. “But I think they’ll be good with the way that they’ve handled it.”

Ross, Michael Carter-Williams (ankle sprain), James Ennis (sore calf), Chuma Okeke (ankle sprain) and Otto Porter Jr. (foot pain) are listed as out for Tuesday’s game.

Starting center Wendell Carter Jr., meanwhile, is questionable with a left eye abrasion. Clifford said the plan is to see how Carter feels on Tuesday and make a decision from that point.

The Magic, as of Monday, were tied for fourth in the NBA’s reverse standings with the Timberwolves and Cavaliers — 1.5 games behind the Pistons and half a game behind the Thunder. That tie, however, will be broken Monday night, as the Cavaliers were set to host the Pacers.

The Rockets (16-52) remain atop the list, and a loss Monday night in Portland would guarantee they’ll finish with the league’s worst record.

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Roy Parry at rparry@orlandosentinel.com. Follow on Twitter @osroyparry

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