Orlando Magic pulled of an impressive victory over the 2nd seeded Toronto Raptors on Saturday. The win just lets in a little creep of playoff doubt for the Raptors who have consistently been disappointing in the NBA Playoffs over the last few seasons. Orlando head coach, Steve Clifford, should be lauded for his improvements in the defensive game of the Magic players. However, There is still work to be done on the offensive side of the ball, but as the saying goes,”Defense wins Championships.”
The Magic are not going to win an NBA Championship this season and will not win next year either, but the consistent refinement of the squad’s talent is undeniably impressive. Just two years ago, the Magic fired GM Rob Hennigan, who led the Magic to the worst five year stretch in the team’s relatively short history. Hennigan single-handedly managed to trade away most of the Magic’s promising prospects. Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo, and Dwight Howard were all shipped out for middling returns. Not to mention, the questionable decision to spend a top five pick on Mario Hezonja as well as trading away the draft rights to Dario Saric.
Those dark days now seem like a distant past for the Orlando Magic fans. There are reasons to be excited about the performance of the team. The players fought with grit and determination in the final month of the regular season to sneak into the playoffs. Steve Clifford led the team to an 8-2 record over the final ten game stretch. During that time, the Magic took down the likes of the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, and the Boston Celtics. The only glaring loss was to the Toronto Raptors, who they now lead 1-0 in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
The Magic had the second lowest Opposing Points per Game record in the regular season among the Eastern Conference Playoff contenders. The Magic also won their first Southeast Division Title since the 2009-10 season. This achievement along with their Game 1 win on Saturday are even more remarkable considering the lack of star players on the team, with the exception of All-Star ceneter, Nikola Vucevic. Instead of solely relying on one player, Orlando utilizes their entire team to get the job done. Vucevic is arguably the Magic’s best player, but he averaged just over three more field goal attempts,13.9, than Aaron Gordon, who is second on the team. The entire team also averaged 25.5 assists per game during the regular season, which is enough for 13th in the league.
It is not critical for the Orlando Magic to win this series against the Toronto Raptors. There is still a long way to go before the organization is competing among the best in the Association night in and night out, but a great deal of tangible progress has been made. Aaron Gordon, Johnathan Issac, Evan Fournier, and Nikola Vucevic have never made the post-season with the Magic. Each individual will gain valuable playoff experience against a team that is trying to play for a title.
General Manager, John Hammond, as well as President of Basketball Operations, Jeff Weltman, have done a truly exceptional job with organizing and running the team behind the scenes. Both men will have their work cut out for them this off-season in order to keep key figures, such as Vucevic, while also trying to bring in talent that can improve the team without impeding the development of their promising players. For now, though, they should enjoy the expedient turnaround of their organization.
Steve Clifford has mentored the young players and fostered confidence and leadership in the team’s veterans. He has come into the playoffs with a dedicated plan for defensive efficiency to stifle Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors. Evan Fournier was quoted as saying,
“Every game that we played well. Every time we had success early on this season, it was because of our defense.”
Clifford has turned the Magic into a defensive juggernaut. Raptors head coach, Nick Nurse, will assuredly adjust the team’s strategy to cope with Orlando’s defensive supremacy. Nurse will most likely allow Kawhi Leonard to play at his full potential after load management in Game 1. As a result, it is foreseeable that the Raptors will win Game 2 tonight and go on to win the series, but the Magic and Clifford will not go down without a strong fight from a team that is playing for each other.
Photo Credit-Unsplash: Tommy Bebo