January may once again be turning point for Orlando Magic

Last year, January proved to sink the Orlando Magic as the team went 2-12. This year, January will again shape the rest of the Magic’s season.

There are any number of ways for a team to divide a season. How a coach approaches dividing a season can even differ within the season. Months are an easy split, as are quarters, thirds, road trips, homestands and all the like.

One thing, though, is becoming crystal clear for the Orlando Magic and their chase to make the Playoffs in 2017. January — the next 31 days — could be very important in defining their season both on and off the court.

Starting with Sunday’s game against the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis, it is truly a new phase to the season.

“It’s a new month and, obviously, it’s a new year also,” coach Frank Vogel said. “Any time you are in any line of work part of, even on a personally level, a new year brings about a chance for optimism, a chance for change, a chance to improve upon oneself. I don’t think it’s different for our team.”

If there is optimism for the Magic it is that they improved from their November record to finish December 8-8. And even through all the inconsistency, the Magic played with throughout the month, they are 1.5 games out of the final playoff spot. It is not precisely where the Magic want to be, but they are hardly out of the race.

There is still plenty to work on. Vogel said he would like to see the Magic get back to defending at their potential.

For at least two weeks, the Magic were the top defensive team in the league. Overall in December, the Magic ranked 24th in defensive rating, giving up 109.1 points per 100 possessions. That is very not good.

More importantly, the players hope to strive in January for some consistency. Both Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon pointed that out as their big goals for January.

“Consistency, I think that is the team’s biggest challenge is consistency,” Aaron Gordon said. “We have nights where we string 48 minutes together and come back and do it the next day. Defensively, if that’s what we want our identity to be, we need to pick it up in the new year. I suppose you can look at it as a new slate. That would be nice if we can turn it around in January.”

The schedule coming up this month will not make it easy, though.

The team will play 11 of the 16 games in January on the road, including a six-game, 11-day road trip to the West Coast that will feature matchups with the L.A. Clippers and Utah Jazz.

Orlando will play nine teams currently in the Playoff picture (and several teams sitting just outside, like the Magic). Orlando will get its first look at the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 22 at the Amway Center. The Magic also play three back-to-backs in the next 31 days.

All this sits against the backdrop of the Feb. 23 trade deadline. The Magic will likely begin making serious overtures for players and hammering out deals based on what the Magic do in January and whether they can get more firmly into the Playoff picture.

Not that players think directly about that. They have a job to do themselves and can only control their play on the floor.

“The goal is to just keep getting better,” said Evan Fournier, who participated in part of Saturday’s practice but still said he “is not there yet” when it comes to his injured heel. Fournier is still listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. “We want to get better as a team and win games to get back into the Playoffs. It’s simple.”

Last year, the Magic entered January with a lot of optimism and high hopes at 19-13. Orlando, at that point, was not merely competing for a Playoff spot but were also fighting for potential home court.

The bottom fell out in January. The team went 2-12 and never could recover, falling completely out of the Playoff race. If any team know what one bad month can do, it is those players who experienced last year’s disastrous January.

This is a different team. But the road is obviously not going to be easy.

“Just take it one day at a time,” C.J. Watson said. “And also just try to win every game. We’re not in the position we want to be, but we’re not that far off. Just win games and try not to lose one game in a row.”

That seems to be the consistent message for the Magic for the month. Find a way to put it all together and take the step forward.

One way or another January is going to set the course for the season for the Magic — and probably for the majority of teams in the Eastern Conference. At some point, the Playoff teams will separate themselves.

Orlando has done a good job keeping pace despite their struggles and inconsistency. At some point, the team has to make its move. January could prove to be the time the team keeps pace or falls behind.

“The goal is to have a winning record in January and to keep getting better,” Fournier said. “How are we going to do that? By keep watching tape, keep practicing, keep having belief in what we can accomplish. We can do it at times. We can show a lot of times we can be really really good. We just have to put it together for 48 minutes and be more consistent.”

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