NBA PM: Can Magic Climb Into Eighth Seed?

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Can the Magic Obtain the Eighth Seed?

If the Orlando Magic are going to make the playoffs, their push to make it into the postseason must start now.

Heading into Wednesday night’s game against the Miami HEAT, the Magic trail the eighth-seeded Brooklyn Nets by six games and the seventh-placed Miami HEAT by six and a half games. A win against the HEAT would bring the Magic a game closer to their goal.

Still, there’s optimism in Orlando right now because the Magic are currently riding a successful stretch of the season where they’ve played some of their best basketball in over a year. That generally is what happens after a team fires their head coach – players buy into the new game plan, want to make a solid impression on their new coach and get a clean slate.

Since the Magic fired Jacque Vaughn, the team has gone 4-2 under interim head coach James Borrego and could very easily be 5-1 under Borrego had it not been for a monumental collapse against the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 8 when they surrendered a six-point lead in the final 32 seconds of the game. After losing to the Washington Wizards just one night later, the Magic have reeled off three straight wins, earning their first three-game win streak in over a year. The last time the Magic won three straight occurred Feb. 5-9 of 2014 when they beat the Detroit Pistons, Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers. A win over the HEAT would be their first four-game win streak since December of 2012.

“The group should feel proud [of their recent success] and they should feel they’re moving in the right direction,” Borrego said. “But by no means are we satisfied. Our defense is a work in progress; we’re far from where we want to be. The goal is to be an elite defense, not just a good or solid defense. The group is committed to an identity. They’re committed to defending at a high level, not just at a solid level. They want to win in this league and they understand to win in this league you have to defend, and they’ve bought into that as a group. They decided on their own they want to win games [and] that’s the start of it.”

The Magic’s transformation on defense is certainly off to a good start under Borrego. Playing under Vaughn, the Magic had the sixth-worst defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1, according to NBA Stats. Since Borrego has taken over, the team has completely flipped the rankings and have the sixth-best defensive rating during his watch. The Magic gave up at least 100 points during the final 14 games of Vaughn’s tenure, while the team has yet to give up 100 points under Borrego and are holding opponents to 92.7 points per game, which is the fourth-fewest in the league during that stretch.

“We’re just more aggressive covering for each other,” Borrego said on the defensive improvement. “I’ve seen more bodies around the ball and a more commitment to one-on-one [assignments] and more of a commitment from [players] stopping [their] man, ‘I don’t need help.’ That’s really changing our defense.”

But while the Magic have been playing well during this small sample size of games, it’s easy to see why they’ve been winning and improving their stats. During the team’s run with Borrego, their wins have been against the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, New Orleans Pelicans and Philadelphia 76ers, with the Pelicans the only team in that group with a winning record. The Magic’s other two losses came to the previously mentioned Bulls and Wizards, both teams destined for the playoffs. It’s possible that the timing of the coaching change happened because of this relatively easy patch in the schedule, so Borrego could start his stint with some wins. For the Magic to be taken seriously for the playoffs, they’ll need to prove themselves against winning teams.

One of the most common reasons why coaching changes can occur during the midst of a season is to rejuvenate players and get them excited and optimistic again. After playing under Borrego for six games, it’s clear the Magic are still on that high of excitement. Borrego is a coach that is well respected throughout the league, having served as an assistant under San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich for 16 seasons. Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown, who also served under Popovich with Borrego, had great things to say about him, as did Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. It’s because of Borrego’s previous experience (and recent success) that the Magic players have begun to buy into his plan and have confidence in him. One unnamed player told our own Steve Kyler that Borrego “can really coach.”

Once Vaughn was let go of his head coaching duties earlier this month, rumors began to swirl on who might replace him moving forward. Borrego was introduced as the interim head coach, but some believed the team might bring in a permanent replacement during the All-Star break. During that time, Scott Skiles, Mark Jackson and George Karl were mentioned as possible candidates before the Magic ultimately decided to keep Borrego on board for at least the remainder of the season.

Naming Borrego the head coach for the rest of the season will eliminate any rumors of possible midseason replacements, which would ultimately allow Borrego to focus on this season without any added distractions. The Magic recognize that they have talent that can make it to the postseason and a new direction under a new voice could get this team to show what they can accomplish.

Whatever fight the Magic have left in them will need to be on display during the next month. Over the course of the next four weeks, the Magic will play teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers – all teams that are currently in the playoff picture. While the Magic’s front office is said to covet a proven, veteran head coach to ultimately take over the team, a strong showing over the final 24 games could help Borrego become a legitimate candidate in team’s coaching search rather than just a placeholder until the offseason.

Kevin Garnett to Make Timberwolves Debut on Wednesday

Nearly a week after acquiring him from the Brooklyn Nets, Kevin Garnett will finally make his debut for the Minnesota Timberwolves tonight against the Washington Wizards. The long-time Timberwolves big man was re-introduced at a press conference on Tuesday and is ready to begin the next chapter of his career.

During the press conference, Garnett expressed his desire to stay in Minnesota long term and eventually put together a group to purchase the team.

“At some point, I want to understand ownership and try to get into that and bring a championship to this city,” Garnett said. “That has been my goal since I became a Wolf.”

Garnett made it clear to reporters that after his playing days are over, coaching will not become an option for him.

“A coach is what I won’t be,” Garnett said. “You can’t talk me into that. My sister is pretty good at talking me into things. My daughters. My wife. But you can’t persuade me to coach.”

Garnett averaged 6.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and one steal in 20 minutes per game this season with the Nets, but Garnett’s impact on the Wolves will come largely off of the court by being a mentor to the younger players on the team. He has only participated in one practice with the Wolves, but has already made quite an impact on his teammates.

“He yelled at [Nikola Pekovic] twice already when I think nobody in his career yelled at him to run back on defense, so that’s good,” Ricky Rubio said. “Everybody listens and everybody respect him. He’s doing everything it takes to get [the team] better.”

The Timberwolves are anticipating a packed arena for Garnett’s return as they’ve released all ticket holds, which will add another 1,000 seats to the arena.