Magic's Season Comes to an End After Game 5 Loss

by John Denton

TORONTO – In the eyes of most players, coaches and front-office executives affiliated with the Orlando Magic, the dominant memory from this season will be, not their unceremonious exit from the playoffs, but instead the stirring late-season run executed just to get there.

Assuredly, the Magic will do their best to try and forget a first-round playoff series where they opened with a Game 1 win but proceeded to drop the next four games – capped by Tuesday’s unsightly 115-96 Game 5 loss to the Toronto Raptors that was decided painfully early in the night.

Still, the Magic would be wise to allow the bitter feelings from this playoff ouster to simmer in their memory banks and drive them throughout the offseason to be better. In the Raptors, the Magic saw firsthand a balanced and potent team that they need to try and pattern themselves after so as to be better equipped come their next playoff run.

``After Game 1, we thought we’d play better and better, but as the series went on (the Raptors) played better and they stepped up their game on both ends of the floor and we weren’t able to do that,’’ said Magic all-star center Nikola Vucevic, who wrapped up a frustrating playoffs with just six points and seven rebounds in 17 foul-plagued minutes on Tuesday. ``It showed in every game and they made it hard for us. They deserved to win the series because they did what they needed to do. At the same time, they were the favorites and they showed they are one of the best teams in the league. We’re just disappointed that we didn’t put up a better fight, especially tonight.’’

Head coach Steve Clifford, the architect of Orlando’s first playoff team in seven seasons, never envisioned the Magic losing four straight games in the series, especially by lopsided margins over the final two games. He gave plenty of credit for that to Toronto for imposing its will on the series. That, however, did little to soften the sting of the season turning so suddenly sour.

``I thought we had the kind of team defensively where we could start (hand raised above his head) and make it more difficult as the series went on, but we were not able to do that, obviously,’’ Clifford lamented. ``Their defense was the key, but their offense got better and better. So, we were never able after Game 1 to handle the ball against their defense the way that we needed to. But credit them – they got better as the series went along and we weren’t ready for that.’’

While the star-studded and deep Raptors just might go on to be true championship contenders, the Magic close the 30thseason in franchise history with a great deal of promise going forward. Once 21-30 in late January, the Magic reeled off an exhilarating 22-9 closing kick to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2012. Orlando won its final nine games at the Amway Center and many of the team’s 11 fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victories came during the late playoff push.

``Everything – our slow start and then us fighting like hell to get back into it, got a great win in Boston (on April 7) to clinch (a playoff berth) and then the disappointing end,’’ said Evan Fournier, referring to how he’ll remember his fifth season in Orlando. ``A great Game 1, but a disappointing end.

``We definitely thought – not after Game 1, but before the series – that we could have done better and we still think that,’’ Fournier added. ``These last two games, with blowouts like that, that’s just not good enough, man.’’

The immediate evaluations would be that the Magic need far more two-way players than they currently possess. Orlando’s offense struggled badly against Toronto’s long and lengthy defense, regularly failing to crack 40 percent from the field. Those offensive woes were only worsened by the continual struggles of Vucevic and guard Terrence Ross – Orlando’s two most lethal offensive weapons all season and two players who will be unrestricted free agents on July 1. Ross, who became the first player in NBA history to make at least 200 3-pointers in a season without starting a game, had 12 points on Tuesday, while Aaron Gordon added 11.

``The goal for us was to get to the playoffs and play well, so I feel like we came up a little short of that,’’ Ross said. ``For the most part, it was a good feeling getting here, but it would have been better getting to a Game 7 and maybe if it would have been decided by one possession or something. But it wasn’t all bad and we did some good things.’’

As for Vucevic, he was out of the game after five minutes with three fouls and he finished his finest season in the NBA in an uncharacteristically poor effort. In the five games of the series, Vucevic – who posted career highs in scoring (20.8) and rebounding (12) and assists (3.8) during the regular season – averaged just 11.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists on 36.2 percent shooting from the floor and 23.1 percent accuracy from 3-point range.

Afterward, Vucevic said he never thought that Tuesday’s game might have been his last in a Magic uniform because of his pending free agency. Instead, his focus was on the lessons learned from a series that took the literal wind out of the Magic’s sails.

``There’s a lot of lessons to be learned … but the main one is that for us it’s seeing that when you get to the playoffs you have to take your game to another whole level,’’ Vucevic said. ``We weren’t able to do that, and they did it.

``We have to learn when you get to this point you have to step your game up, your play has to be better and your approach has to be better,’’ he added. ``For a lot of us, it was our first time playing in the playoffs in major roles like this. It’s a good learning experience for us. The next time that we’re in this position, I feel we’ll be better.’’

Game 1 hero D.J. Augustin, who had 25 points in the opener and just 24 in the next three games, finished with 15 points for a Magic team that shot just 38.6 percent from the floor and made only nine of 34 3-point shots.

Toronto got another 27 points from superstar forward Kawhi Leonard, who drilled eight of 11 shots and connected on all five of his 3-point shots and all six free throws. For the series, Leonard gashed the Magic for 27.8 points per game on 55.5 percent shooting.

The seventh-seeded Magic won Game 1 of the series on a 3-point dagger by Augustin, but the second-seeded Raptors proceeded to dominate the next four games. Most frustrating for the Magic was losing Games 3 and 4 at the Amway Center and being unable to deliver a victory to their success-starved fans. Orlando had hopes of winning on Tuesday so as to get another shot at winning at home in a Game 6, but that was never a possibility following another disastrous opening to the game.

Fournier was visibly upset after losing the two games at home days earlier, saying: ``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. That’s a big reason why we want to come back (to Orlando) for a Game 6.’’

Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry scored his team’s first nine points on Tuesday – a mark the Magic didn’t hit until the Raptors already had 31 points. Lowry, who finished with 14 points and nine assists, admitted the Raptors were highly motivated after losing Game 1 to the Magic.

``We figured it out after that Game 1 – we were too soft,’’ Lowry said. ``To figure it out that quickly, that was good for us.’’

Much like Games 2 and 3 when they fell behind 11-0 and 10-0, the Magic found themselves trailing 12-1, 25-5 and 31-7 in the early going on Tuesday and by 20 at the half. That deficit swelled to as much as 31 points in the third quarter and by 37 early in the fourth, threatening the franchise’s all-time worst playoff loss (35 points on April 24, 1997 in Miami against the Heat).

The first half was about as disastrous as it possibly could have been for a Magic team that desperately needed things to go right. They missed their first five shots, were off on 10 of the first 11 and saw Vucevic pick up three fouls in less than six minutes. Incredibly, a Magic team that entered the playoffs as one of the NBA’s hottest teams fell behind by as much as 24 points in the first quarter and trailed 67-47 at the half.

Vucevic’s frustration-filled series came to a head early in Tuesday’s game. After he missed his fourth straight shot, Vucevic picked up his third foul in the game’s opening minutes on an offensive foul. That sent the team’s lone all-star from the past seven seasons to bench where he would log his first scoreless opening half of the season.

Orlando was once again a mess offensively, shooting just 38.5 percent from the floor, committing five offensive fouls and twice being hit with technical fouls after slamming the ball to the floor.
Toronto, meanwhile, carved Orlando up with its drive-and-kick offense. The Raptors shot 56.1 percent in the first half and drilled 10 of 19 3-pointers.

Leonard, who tortured the Magic all series on both ends of the floor, scored 14 points in the first half. Pascal Siakam, the likely winner of the Most Improved Player award, added 12 first-half points – nine more than his cover for the series, Jonathan Isaac (three first-half points). He finished with 24 points, while Isaac missed six of his seven shot attempts in the game.

Toronto, which has a long history of struggles in the postseason, won a best-of-seven series in five games for the time ever.

As for Orlando, young players like Isaac – a 21-year-old building block for the future – he feels the Magic made tremendous strides this season despite Tuesday’s ugly finish. He feels the Magic now have some positive momentum to take into the offseason and experiences that will help the franchise greatly going forward.

``It’s unfortunate the way it ended with the start that we had, but they adjusted,’’ said Isaac, who averaged 6.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.0 blocked shots in the first playoff series of his career. ``This has been huge for us and I’m beyond thrilled that we got here. I’m not excited about the (final result), but we did something exciting for the city (of Orlando) and we can build upon it.

``In just a short amount of time that we’ve been under new management and new coaching, it’s shown how different things have been from last year to this year,’’ Isaac added. ``So hopefully we can all make another leap and do something big next year.’’

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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