Aaron Gordon’s matchup with Kawhi Leonard will determine series for Orlando Magic

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 1: Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) looks to clear Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) out of his way as he heads to the hoop. Toronto Raptors vs Orlando Magic in 2nd half action of NBA regular season play at ScotiaBank Arena. Raptors won 121-10. Toronto Star/Rick Madonik (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - APRIL 1: Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) looks to clear Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) out of his way as he heads to the hoop. Toronto Raptors vs Orlando Magic in 2nd half action of NBA regular season play at ScotiaBank Arena. Raptors won 121-10. Toronto Star/Rick Madonik (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images) /

Aaron Gordon is one of the promising players for the Orlando Magic. To win this series, he has to mature and win his battle with Kawhi Leonard.

At the beginning of the season, Aaron Gordon addressed the media at the team’s annual media day with Steve Clifford taking photos nearby. Before the media could get any question in, he shouted “All-Defensive Team.”

Aaron Gordon sheepishly smiled and confirmed his new coach informed him of his two-way potential and his hopes he could become both a dynamic offensive player and an elite defensive player too.

This was something of a callback to what Gordon said at his press conference following the draft. He wanted to be an all-defensive team player and make his mark on that end. As he grew offensively, this was the first place he could make his impact on the floor. This is where his athleticism could flourish.

Gordon has re-established himself as a solid defender. If he wants to be a top defender, this upcoming playoffs will be his ultimate test.

Without a doubt, the Orlando Magic will turn to Aaron Gordon to defend Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard. Leonard is an experienced player and the guy the Raptors acquired to take them over the top and into the NBA Finals this year. He has the championship pedigree.

If the Magic want any chance of winning this series, it will start with whether the Magic can strangle the head of the snake, so to speak, and check Leonard.

It may also come down to whether Gordon can generate any kind of offense against Leonard and his usually suffocating defense. How these two players matchup will determine a lot in this first-round series.

To be sure, the matchup of the Magic’s most trusted player and the Raptors’ superstar could guide which direction the series will go.

The Magic at least seem to have a chance.

Gordon turned in a strong defensive season — 5.1 defensive win shares and a career-best 1.2 defensive box plus-minus.

As the Magic grew and developed this year, Gordon became one of Clifford’s most trusted players. He led the team in minutes per game (33.8) and was the player who sacrificed some to be the anchor for the second unit.

His scoring may not have taken a huge leap, but he rediscovered his defensive bona fides and turned into the team’s top defender, getting the draw on the best players.

He did a number on Leonard throughout the season.

With Gordon as the primary defender, Leonard averaged only 18.0 points per game on a 46.8 percent effective field goal percentage in three games. Considering Leonard averaged 26.6 points per game on a 54.6 percent effective field goal percentage, that is pretty impressive.

Clifford praised Gordon’s discipline defending Leonard specifically as he previewed the series on Thursday after the team’s first playoff practice. It will surely take a team effort to keep Leonard in check and he will still fight for his share of “garbage” points in transition and off rebounds.

But if the regular season means anything, the Magic were able to keep Leonard relatively in check.

That is what the team has to hope for if they want any chance in the series. The Magic have to try to slow down the Raptors’ best and primary offensive option. That helped Orlando in a blowout win at the Amway Center in December, a close game in November and then in the final meeting in Toronto in April.

The Raptors still won that game running away. Stopping Leonard on its own is not going to deliver the Magic a win. But it will certainly give them a chance.

The problem is Leonard can take his game to another level.

In his last playoff appearance in 2017, Leonard averaged 27.7 points per game on a 58.7 percent effective field goal percentage. That was all before he sprained his ankle in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.

It is very clear Leonard has another gear he can shift to offensively for the playoffs. He has learned from the time he was a rookie how to pace himself and prepare himself for the postseason. The Raptors acquired him for this exact reason.

They also grabbed him for his defensive ability.

So while Gordon might have a chance to slow down Leonard, the bigger concern is just how much Leonard will slow down Gordon.

Leonard this year has not been his typical defensive self — his 3.4 defensive win shares track more to his early career than his peak a few years ago. But Leonard can raise his game again.

And the Magic rely heavily on Gordon’s ability to score. His involvement is often a barometer for the team’s offense.

In wins this year, Gordon averaged 17.1 points per game on a 54.3 percent effective field goal percentage. In losses, Gordon’s average drops to 14.8 points per game on a 46.9 percent effective field goal percentage.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

That drop in efficiency is everything for the Magic. Gordon typically gets his shots when the offense flows and moves, finding him within the flow where he can attack quickly off the dribble. If he has to pause and drive in isolation, he struggles and the offense struggles.

Certainly setting up opportunities for Gordon to attack Leonard while Leonard is set will not go well for the Magic.

It will be equally important for Orlando to find a way to get Gordon going if the team wants any hope to win the series.

If Gordon can get scoring and find efficient shots — even off putbacks and transition — that is a very good sign for the Magic.

No one is expecting Gordon to “win” the matchup with Leonard. His goal is merely to hold his own, slow him down and find a way to scratch out points on his own.

This is the opportunity for Gordon to showcase himself and what he can be.

He said at the beginning of the season he wanted to be on the all-defensive team. That will not happen this year. But this kind of series can prove he has that potential. With a strong defensive performance, especially, he can take a major step toward that goal.

Next. 5 adjustments the Orlando Magic must make for the playoffs. dark

Gordon is certainly capable. And the Magic need him to be.