There was a refreshed feeling at Orlando Magic practice Tuesday.
The All-Star Break had provided a nice dividing line, letting players get away and reset their batteries some for the final 24 games. It was also a dividing line for another reason.
The Magic got their first practice with new acquisition Terrence Ross on Tuesday after the Magic and Toronto Raptors completed their trade just before the All-Star Break. Neither Ross nor Serge Ibaka, who was sent to the Raptors in the deal, played for their respective teams before the break, so they will debut for their new teams on Thursday.
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With Ross now part of the team, It feels in some ways like the Magic are a new team. So much so that it feels like the All-Star Break is now the beginning of a new season.
Even though they are fading out of the playoff race — 6 1/2 games out with 24 to play — the Magic are not about to pack it in. Thursday’s game against the visiting Portland Trail Blazers is the start of a new “mini-season” for Orlando, one in which the team begins resetting its culture and preparing for a Playoff push in 2018.
“Right now, we’re 0-0,” coach Frank Vogel said. “We’re not going to focus on the standings and how many games we’ve got to make up or anything like that. We’re going to focus on bringing maximum effort to practice and maximum focus into the game planning and preparations and all the little habits that our young players need to develop.”
The Trail Blazers are in a somewhat similar situation.
Like Orlando, Portland came into the season with playoff ambitions. Instead, the team has struggled. The Blazers are 23-33 at the break and two games out of the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference.
Portland, like Orlando, made a move in the week before the deadline, acquiring center Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick from the Denver Nuggets in exchange for center Mason Plumlee. The shifting for the Blazers will not be as big as it is for the Magic, but Portland too needs to move some things and prepare for the final push this season.
“I think the All-Star break is a good time for everybody,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian before tipoff of last Wednesday’s game. “I think everybody’s ready for a break and ready for the sprint to the end.”
The final sprint for the season will be an intriguing one around the league. There is still a lot that can be done for every team — even those out of the playoff picture.
For Portland, the team is trying to make that playoff push. With Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum as one of the highest-scoring duos in the league, not to mention playoff experience last year, the Trail Blazers are doing everything they can to make the postseason.
For Orlando, clearly far out of the playoff race, the team is trying to make the most of its final 24 games. The Magic are not mathematically eliminated and so will not let the dream die. But they also seem to have come to grips with the reality that they are not likely to make that push. For them, they are just trying to find a foundation to build upon once again.
And there is still Thursday’s trade deadline to navigate.
The second half to the season will be a sprint to the finish for many teams. There is still something to accomplish no matter where teams are in the standings after the All-Star Break.
The NBA season for the Magic and Blazers starts anew Thursday in Orlando.