Orlando Magic must feel so close, and so far from NBA Finals teams

Aaron Gordon got some valuable lessons going toe-to-toe with Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Aaron Gordon got some valuable lessons going toe-to-toe with Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic had some of their best moments against the NBA Finalists. They also had some of their lowest showing them how far they have left.

When ESPN posted the stat that the Golden State Warriors had lost just one time when Stephen Curry played and Kevin Durant did not, Aaron Gordon was quick to let them know who that one “L” belonged to.

On Feb. 28, the Orlando Magic outscored the Golden State Warriors 33-15 in the fourth quarter to come from behind to defeat the defending champions. It was rare not only because the Magic won the game while Durant sat and Curry played, but also because of the double-digit deficit the Magic erased in the fourth quarter.

Aaron Gordon had one of his best games of the season, scoring 22 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in the win. His big 3-pointer to give the Magic the lead late in that game punctuate perhaps one of the best wins of the season and a major turning point for the team in their eventual playoff run.

The Orlando Magic can claim at least some success over the Eastern Conference champion Toronto Raptors. In the regular season, at least, the Magic scored two blowout wins (one where Kawhi Leonard played) and hung tough with them in the two losses during the regular season.

It took a Danny Green game-winning basket in their November matchup for Toronto to escape with a win. And then it took Green going off for 29 points on seven 3-pointers for the Raptors to come from behind at home and win in April.

D.J. Augustin punctuated the Magic’s playoff appearance with a masterful Game 1 that ended with him hitting the go-ahead 3-pointer late in the game. Orlando put a lot of people on notice in that series.

Those wins — Orlando went 4-7 overall against the NBA finalists this season — showed the Magic have the talent to compete against these great teams on an individual game basis. The Magic proved throughout the year they are capable of competing with and beating any team on any night.

But those opponents also proved over and over again that in the playoff setting, the Magic are still far away from the consistency they need to compete at the highest levels.

Orlando is a young team still, experiencing the playoffs for the first time. If they are as good as some of us think they are and can be, they will use that experience to sharpen their focus to ensure they get back and advance further.

Nothing should wake them up more than seeing what playoff basketball was really like. Especially against a team that eventually made the NBA Finals.

As much fun as making the playoffs were, that series was far from positive. The Raptors were clearly the better team, able to reach down for an extra gear and limit the Magic.

Orlando had two real chances to win in that series.

In Game 1, the Magic took the Raptors by surprise and forced them to adjust. In Game 3, riding the emotion of the crowd and a suddenly hot Nikola Vucevic, Orlando was fighting to stay above water and trailed by three late in the game.

But both those games were blips on the radar in the larger series. Toronto ripped Orlando apart, frustrating their best offensive players and leaving Orlando with no one who could step up to relieve the pressure. The Magic came undone in the crucible of the postseason.

The playoff series with Toronto — and to some extent the November loss to Golden State — showed how precarious Orlando’s position was.

In the loss to the Warriors in Oakland, Gordon left the game in the second quarter with an injury with the Magic up by double digits. Then Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant took over and singlehandedly dragged the Warriors to a win in the fourth quarter.

Orlando never faced Golden State at full power. Stephen Curry missed the game in November and Kevin Durant missed the game in February. Their win was special and deserved, but certainly not the Warriors at their peak.

As Orlando learned in the playoffs, a regular season champion like Toronto is different than a playoff version of that same team.

No one is about to claim the Magic are on their championship level. No one is probably willing to claim they are even close to that level at this point.

One of the big lessons of the team’s playoff appearance was that this team is good. They can play against anyone. But they are not playoff good. When teams can focus on what they do and prepare specifically for them with playoff detail, they can get shut down.

That is typical of teams on the lower end of the playoffs.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

They have to be playing at their best running into the postseason rather than ramping up to that extra gear once they start. Orlando had to play its best as the regular season came to a close. There was not an extra gear to get them there.

Further, the team’s flaws were exposed. Most of all, the lack of a true creator and one-on-one player. Orlando had no one who could create his own shot. Once the Raptors choked off Nikola Vucevic in the post, the Magic had no one else who could step up.

It was not really until the later stages of Game 3 and Game 4 that Gordon started to attack more off the dribble and find moderate success. The Magic probably needed Aaron Gordon or Evan Fournier to take on more of that role after Toronto shut out D.J. Augustin to give Nikola Vucevic more breathing room to work.

The Raptors quickly understood by the second half of Game 1 and into Game 2 they could pressure and swarm ball handlers and slow the Magic’s offense to a crawl, creating the turnovers that feed their offense.

Orlando had a lot to learn about playoff basketball. The team still has a lot to learn about winning in the postseason.

But things are not all bad. The Magic needed these lessons. And even in the playoff defeat, Orlando showed it can compete with the best teams. There were lots of struggles in those games but also plenty of promise from Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac. They opened up more than a few eyes.

The NBA Finals are still a long way off for this team. Their ability to compete for the playoffs and compete with the best teams in the league is here.

Next. Orlando Magic Offseason Outlook: All about Vooch. dark

The Magic can watch the NBA Finals knowing they have work to do but they can stand against these teams the next time they see them.