By Austin David
For the News-Gazette
The Orlando Magic are winners in the NBA Playoffs.
First, let that statement settle in. Marinate in it. Appreciate it.
Now, let’s unpack how they got there and what that means heading into Game 2 of their series with the Toronto Raptors.
In mid-January the team sat at 19-24, one game out of the eighth seed and still trying to find consistency on the court. From that point, even with a couple of tough losses, the Magic finished the season 23-16, earning their first winning season since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. That was seven years ago if you’re slow on the math.
One of the biggest changes from January to now has been the team’s bench. Its production had been lacking in many games early in the season and not many teams can make a playoff run without solid contributors off the bench — Terrance Ross being the obvious exception.
In stepped Michael Carter-Williams, Wesley Iwundu and Khem Birch, who changed the dynamic of the Magic second unit with their energy and playmaking ability on both ends of the court. Carter-Williams was trying to play his way onto the team with a 10-day contract, Iwundu was still trying to find consistency in the NBA game and Birch was saddled behind Mo Bamba before he went down with injury. All three players gave the Magic second unit renewed life and their play kept Orlando in key games down the stretch, making huge, game-changing plays.
The starters have been playing at a high level as well. Nikola Vucevic has been having the best season of his career, and his All-Star nod reinforced that. NBA sophomore Jonathan Isaac has broken out as of late, having changed up his shooting mechanics to make his three-point shot more consistent and is now a true threat from downtown. Aaron Gordon has grown his game to be a variable two-way player, guarding opponents’ best offensive players on defense while also making smart plays on offense. Evan Fournier has come up big when needed, averaging 15 points per game through the last 39 games of the season and point guard D.J. Augustin has played some of his best basketball in recent memory and is peaking now, made clear by hitting the game-winning shot against the Raptors in the Magic’s 104-101 playoff-opening victory Saturday in Toronto.
All of this player development has been in part to Head Coach Steve Clifford, who has done a job that four other coaches could not do: make the Magic contenders again. Not since Clifford was an assistant on Stan Van Gundy’s bench has Orlando played meaningful basketball in April. He truly deserves a tremendous amount of credit for his job coaching.
Now, the Magic have finally reached the promised land of the playoffs and they’re facing one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference in the Toronto Raptors. Having already stolen Game 1 in dramatic fashion, the series is guaranteed to go at least five games, which allows four more games for the Magic to show off in front of a national audience. Regardless of what happens with the series, these next few games are an opportunity for Orlando to reintroduce themselves to the fans of the league. It’s a chance to show off what a team of pure length can accomplish in the postseason. Not just that, but it’s a chance for this town to fully embrace the Magic again, not simply as the lovable losing local NBA team, but the winning playoff basketball team that has a legitimate shot to make waves in the playoffs.
The offseason will produce some pretty daunting issues, like how to keep Nikola Vucevic and Terrance Ross, what the plan will be with Mo Bamba and whether the team should go after another point guard. But those questions can be left for another day. The Orlando Magic are in the NBA Playoffs and, for now, it feels pretty good to “Believe in Magic” again.