Magic Not Going to Back Down Despite 3-1 Series Deficit

by John Denton

TORONTO – Determined to not lose hope in a series where he has quietly shined despite often being on the receiving end of Kawhi Leonard’s brilliance, forward Aaron Gordon meticulously crafted a scenario that just might breathe some life into his wheezing Orlando Magic.

``We’re going to go to Toronto and, obviously, look for a win,’’ Gordon said following the Magic’s 107-85 loss in Sunday night’s Game 4 that dropped them into a daunting 3-1 hole.

``We’ve shown that we can win there (in Toronto) before and, that’s what we’re going to do,’’ Gordon continued. ``That’s the idea – go out there and fight – definitely fight – and potentially get back here (to Orlando for a Game 6). We get a win out there (in Toronto), then the series is up for grabs.’’

While some might roll their eyes at such a projection following the Magic’s home losses in Games 3 and 4 to a Toronto team that looks defensively dominant, know this much about Gordon: He is supremely confident, thoughtful in his responses and he believes what he says wholeheartedly. He knows that even though Orlando is down and pressed into must-win mode – a position it grew infinitely familiar with late in the regular season while pushing through to the postseason – there is still reason to fight, reason to believe and reason to win.

``I mean, we’ve always been good playing with our backs against the wall, so the message will be to go out there, get a win and bring it back to our home floor,’’ Gordon said following his 25-point, seven-rebound, five-assist night on Sunday. ``If we can accomplish that, we feel like it’s anybody’s series.’’

It says a lot about the strength of Gordon’s beliefs considering the way second-seeded Toronto and Leonard broke the collective will of the seventh-seeded Magic in Games 3 and 4. On Friday, Toronto rode a 16-0 third-quarter burst and smothered the Magic defensively in a 98-93 win that disappointed a raucous Amway Center crowd. Then, on Sunday, Leonard choked off Orlando’s promising start by systematically taking apart the Magic on both ends of the floor with his 34 points, six rebounds, two blocks, two steals and four pass deflections.

Now, on the brink of elimination slightly more than a week after shockingly winning Game 1 in clutch fashion, the Magic are left to try and put the pieces of their team back together following their disappointment at home. They head to Toronto for Tuesday’s Game 5 (tip time: 7 p.m.; TV: Fox Sports Florida) with the confidence of having twice won on the Raptors’ home court – once in February during the regular season and once in the playoffs when Orlando point guard D.J. Augustin drilled a 3-point dagger in the final seconds.

Head coach Steve Clifford, the architect of a Magic team that showed tremendous resiliency all season long in the face of adversity, said the Magic can’t just head into Game 5 wanting to avoid getting beaten for a fourth straight time. Go in with that mindset, Clifford said, and it’s too easy to give in if things go poorly early on. Go all in with the belief that they are still capable of turning the tenor of the series around and ultimately winning – like Gordon said in his postgame message on Sunday – and anything is still possible for the Magic, Clifford stressed.

``What I just said in the locker room (on Sunday night) is we can do one of two things,’’ Clifford noted. ``We can either do the proverbial, `We’re down 3-1 … we have to win two in Toronto … they’re really good … say we’re going to fight no matter what … and then if we get down 10, stop fighting.’
``Or, we can really fight,’’ Clifford said with conviction. ``But we won’t know until adversity hits.’’

Adversity hit in the guts of this playoff series when the star-studded and veteran-laden Raptors tightened up defensively and got increasingly more physical. In the four games so far, Orlando has averaged just 91 points and shot only 38.9 percent from the floor and 30.7 percent from 3-point range against a Toronto defense that features two former Defensive Players of the Year (Marc Gasol and Leonard), two former All-NBA Defense picks (Danny Green and Kyle Lowry) and a likely future All-NBA Defense pick (Pascal Siakam).

In this series, the Magic’s offensive rating (96 points per 100 possessions) ranks 14thamong the 16 teams in the postseason. Defensively, the Magic are an adequate 10th(110.6 points per 100 possessions), but they have had major problems in other key areas such as turnover percentage (16.1 percent, 14thin the NBA), opponents points off turnovers (18.3 ppg., 14thin the NBA) and opponents’ fast break points (12.5 ppg., seventh in the NBA). Also, Friday’s Game 3 loss saw the Magic surrender several key offensive rebounds to the Raptors late and on Sunday Toronto owned a 45-34 rebounding edge – the first time Orlando had been outrebounded by as much as 11 boards since a Jan. 19 home loss to Milwaukee.

Then, of course, there’s the matter of Leonard, who has once again been a one-man wrecking ball on both ends of the court. He’s averaged 28 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.3 steals in four games. On Sunday, he seemingly followed up every Magic rally with a back-breaking basket to blunt the momentum.

Many of the Magic’s declining numbers are dramatically different than the ones that they crafted over the final 31 games of the regular season to push their way into the playoffs. From Jan. 31 to April 10, the Magic went 22-9 (third-best in the NBA). Also, during that closing kick of the regular season, Orlando ranked first in the NBA in defensive rating, first in defensive rebound percentage, seventh in turnover percentage, eighth in offensive efficiency and 10thin 3-point shooting.

Seeing massive dips in those numbers – caused, of course, by Toronto’s toughness and tenacity – has spelled a somewhat predictable doom for Orlando.
``We don’t have a lot of room for error,’’ Clifford acknowledged after Game 4. ``You can make an argument that the biggest difference was their Game 3 offensive rebounding and the same happened tonight. We weren’t hitting (while rebounding); we’re going to have to hit. Look at the strengths of the (Magic) team – if turn the ball over, it’s going to be a problem. And if we don’t win the rebounding game by a pretty significant margin, it’s not going to happen for us.

``To me, it’s the turnovers, the rebounding game and then the same thing – the purpose of play,’’ Clifford added. ``(The Raptors) are hard to play against and you can see it early in the game. We have to understand how we have to play in order to play well. It takes a lot of discipline.’’

Gordon has stayed disciplined, for the most part, throughout the series, working hard to get into the lane and either create a shot for himself or a teammate. Despite having to deal with the rigors and frustration that come with checking Leonard, Gordon has still averaged 16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists a game while shooting a solid 51 percent from the floor and 50 percent from 3-point range.

As if his postgame comments from Sunday weren’t enough of an indicator, Gordon hasn’t shown one ounce of quit. He is still hopeful that Orlando can recreate their late-season magic on Tuesday in Toronto and get the best-of-seven series back to Orlando.

`` We’re going to watch the film and go over how we can play better as a team,’’ said Gordon, whose Magic were scheduled to hold a film session and a team meeting upon arriving at their hotel in Toronto on Monday. ``That’s what we’ve been doing all year, and winning games collectively. So, if we’re going to go out there and get a win, we’re going to do it as a collective unit. Obviously, I’m going to be aggressive and do what I can to help my team win, but we’re going to do it as a unit.’’

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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