Magic Have Been One of NBA's Best Feel-Good Stories This Season

Magic are competing in playoffs largely because of their resilience and fighting spirit
by John Denton

TORONTO – Regardless of how this season ends for the Orlando Magic – in Tuesday’s Game 5 or well beyond – all-star center Nikola Vucevic said this team will always be remembered by him for its steely resolve, a never-say-die attitude and the fight shown to get the franchise back into the playoffs.

Once 20-31 in late January, the Magic became one of the NBA’s best feel-good stories of the season when they strung together a 22-9 closing kick to slingshot the franchise into the postseason for the first time since 2012. And it wasn’t just that the Magic won more games than they had in seven seasons – it was the manner in which their fighting spirit kept them in games and saw them pull off the second-most fourth-quarter comebacks (11) in the NBA this season.

Orlando parlayed that regular-season momentum into a defeat of Toronto in Game 1 of the best-of-seven, first-round playoff series, but it couldn’t keep it going and disappointingly dropped the next three games in a row – two of them before raucous, sellout crowds at the Amway Center. The Magic went into Tuesday’s Game 5 in Toronto in a 3-1 hole, knowing that elimination would come with another loss in the series. The Magic held out hope that they had one more rally in them to keep this stirring season alive.

``For us, all year we just kept fighting whenever we were in a hole and whenever it got difficult, we kept fighting,’’ said center Nikola Vucevic, who became a first-time NBA All-Star all season. ``Obviously, we haven’t been in a situation like we are (Tuesday) where if we lose, it’s over. I believe all these guys are really going to bring it and we’re going to try and fight. We want to keep this thing going, we believe we have it in us, and we want to extend the series.’’

GORDON’S GROWTH: All season, Magic forward Aaron Gordon has carefully tried walking a fine line of using his athleticism and skill to take over games and also staying within the confines of the offense. While that scenario often gave Gordon fits early in his career, he definitely turned a corner this season and he’s been a picture of efficiency in these playoffs.

Gordon came into Tuesday’s Game 5 averaging 16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, a team-high 4.3 assists and 1.25 steals a game. Even more impressive is fact that Gordon has limited his number of hurried or forced shots and through four games as he’s converted 51 percent of his field goals and 50 percent of his 3-point shots – despite superstar forward Kawhi Leonard checking him most of the series. Sunday’s Game 4 was the best playoff performance of his young career as he made 10 of 17 shots and gave the Magic 25 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Additionally, in almost 38 minutes on the floor he turned the ball over just once.

``It’s just about being aggressive,’’ Gordon said, noting that if he stays in attack mode, he can still create baskets for both himself and others on the team. ``My teammates have done a good job of finding me and getting me the (basketball). I’m just trying to stay aggressive and play my game.’’

TURNOVER TROUBLES: One of the primary reasons that the Magic were able to close the regular season with a 22-9 burst was because of their inability to limit turnovers and prevent teams from scoring on them when they did give the ball away.

Orlando used a similar formula in its 104-101 defeat of the Raptors, turning the ball over just 11 times and allowing the Raptors to scored only 13 points off those mistakes. However, when Toronto turned up the defensively intensity in the next three games, the Magic’s offensive rhythm was disrupted by turnover numbers of 17, 16 and 17. The Raptors, the NBA’s best team during the regular season at converting turnovers into points, scored 26, 13 and 21 points off those mistakes.

``We’ve done a really good job of getting our hands on a lot of passes and deflections have been way up,’’ Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. ``Most of that starts with really good ball pressure and I think that we’re speeding them up a little more than they’re used to. When you’re sped up it gets hard to make plays or see the next play. The first option looks good, and then we cover that one up, and now you’re going to two or three and maybe your decision-making isn’t quite as good. And our length has a lot to do with it, too.

Vucevic agreed, adding that Toronto’s defensive length separates it from other teams in the league: ``There’s not many teams that have the length that they have, especially with the addition of Marc Gasol, who is another big guy with a lot of length and a big body. Him, Pascal (Siakam) and Kawhi, it’s not easy to get into the paint and make plays. It’s been giving us trouble the last few games and our turnovers are high. Against a team like Toronto, you just can’t have that.’’

HOME BLUES: Among the many reasons that the Magic went into Tuesday’s Game 5 wanting to win – other than staving off elimination, of course – was so that they could get back home and play another game at the Amway Center. Several Magic players were visibly upset that they couldn’t win in front of their fan base in Games 3 and 4, and they’d like nothing more than to be able to play once more in front of the fans who created a raucous environment in Orlando.

``It’s tough, man, because these fans have been waiting for these (playoff) games for so long and it’s really disappointing to not be able to give them a win,’’ Magic guard Evan Fournier said. ``That’s a big reason why we want to come back (to Orlando) for a Game 6.’’

Orlando built its late-season playoff run on the shoulders of its dominance at the Amway Center. The Magic won 13 of their last 14 at home during the regular season, including nine in a row down the stretch. That winning spree was stopped with the Game 3 and Game 4 losses to the second-seeded Raptors.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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