Orlando Magic helped push Toronto Raptors to Finals level, Raptors will do the same

Jonathan Isaac's size proved a solid deterrent during the playoff series for the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Jonathan Isaac's size proved a solid deterrent during the playoff series for the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic made the Toronto Raptors take a hard look at themselves after they won Game 1. The playoff series loss will force the Magic to do the same.

The Orlando Magic are easily forgotten in the larger landscape of the NBA.

Despite a top-10 defense in the league, no individual Magic players got a vote for the NBA’s All-Defense teams. Terrence Ross was a clear snub for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, not making the top three for the award.

Coach Steve Clifford manufactured the biggest turnaround in the league this past season, also failed to make the finalists for the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award.

They were a nice story for those that did see them, going 42-40 and earning a seven-seed in the playoffs.

Their chances to win that first-round series against the Toronto Raptors were small. Fans ate up the team’s two playoff games at Amway Center. But the victory seemed a long way off. It was clear this was a learning experience the young team needed more than their chance for a true playoff moment.

The Raptors though remember the Magic.

Their five-game series with Orlando was a necessary step for the team to make the franchise’s first NBA Finals and a reminder of the intense focus the playoffs would take.

Their series with the Magic was not the cakewalk everyone thought it would be — or even what it looked like on paper. It taught them an important lesson they would need to move on and defeat the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks to reach the NBA Finals. And then eventually to win Game 1 over the defending champion Golden State Warriors.

Jackie MacMullen detailed the change in a recent write-up on Raptors coach Nick Nurse on ESPN.com.

The Magic had just upset the Raptors in Game 1 of the series. Orlando was able to copy much of its strategy from the team’s two regular-season victories.

The Magic used their length to disrupt the Raptors offense and they played with a searing intensity. They had been in playoff mode for several weeks already and were playing at their absolute best.

Orlando could pull the team apart and protect the ball to prevent Toronto’s fast-break opportunities.

Some players were struggling offensively in their first playoff game. But D.J. Augustin was going to drive the team forward. He was the experience and balance the team needed. And he torched the Raptors defense.

D.J. Augustin scored 19 points in the first half and then clinched the game with a pull-up 3-pointer over Kawhi Leonard in the dying seconds.

Toronto was stunned, feeling another Game 1 failure on the team’s hands. Scars of previous playoff failures bubbled up. It was not clear if things would be different even with the arrival of a mega superstar in Leonard.

Nurse, as MacMullen tells it, was seething. He was frustrated the team did not play with playoff intensity and effort. They were not playing to their potential. He let them know it as he showed clips of the magic carving the Raptors up.

"Nurse, enraged by the subpar effort of a group that included veterans [Kyle] Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Danny Green, spliced together damning examples of Toronto’s lackadaisical approach.“I had 17 clips I was going to show,” Nurse says. “I think I stopped at one. I thought they understood how hard we needed to play because it was the playoffs. Apparently, they didn’t.”Nurse made it clear he would not tolerate that. He yelled so loud, and so long, that he lost his voice, his players report. His spittle spewed perilously close to the suddenly attentive — and surprised — NBA millionaires."

The rest of the series the Raptors dominated. Orlando ended up with the second worst net rating of the entire playoffs as Toronto pushed the team around.

The first adjustment was switching Danny Green onto D.J. Augustin, eliminating the team’s best player at dribble penetration.

The second was continuing to pressure and double Nikola Vucevic. He struggled to read where the help was coming from and Toronto’s length and defensive focus prevented him from having easy outlets.

Orlando struggled to find any other outlets offensively. The Raptors did a good job staying attached to Terrence Ross’ hip. He only broke free in the fourth quarter of Game 3, helping Orlando inch back into that game and create a sliver of hope.

Aaron Gordon did not look to attack off the dribble against Kawhi Leonard until late in Game 4. Evan Fournier struggled to make the open shots the Raptors left him — his infamous 1-for-8 3-point shooting performance was a big reason Orlando lost Game 3.

And Jonathan Isaac, who did great work locking up Pascal Siakam in the regular season, struggled to stay out of foul trouble allowing the league’s likely Most Improved Player to break out further — 22.6 points per game and 8.4 rebounds per game in the series.

Leonard was brilliant throughout. Orlando threw its best defender in Aaron Gordon at him. And then threw at least two other defenders his way and he still was able to break the defense.

Everything Orlando relied upon in the regular season no longer worked. The Magic learned the playoffs are an entirely different animal. The Raptors were able to squeeze the Magic out of their comfort zone.

Toronto’s Game 1 loss was a clear turning point. And it was important to the team’s run through the playoffs.

The Raptors needed the challenge and the test the Magic gave them too.

A billboard from New Balance in Oakland says it best, perhaps. In order for the Raptors to get to the Finals, they had to cross the Magic off the list. It was not a simple series for them by any means.

Orlando was hardly the pushover the score in the series suggested. The Magic caught the Raptors by surprise with its effort and energy.

Toronto put its foot down the rest of the way. That little adversity and reminder of the playoff intensity needed sunk in. Toronto was dialed in the rest of the way.

They used that struggle and intensity to defeat the 76ers and Bucks. The first in seven and the second in six. Leonard was dialed in as he dominated the game in almost every facet. It has been the other players who have come in and out.

Fred VanVleet proved vital in the Raptors’ Eastern Conference-clinching win. Ibaka has come up with big games on several occasions.

And at long last, in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Siakam looked like the player who dominated the Magic throughout that series. And Toronto has learned throughout the playoffs how to fill in and step up as needed.

This all started with their series with the Magic. It was an important building block for them.

Just like the series will become an important building block for Orlando. This season was, like the playoffs series for the Raptors, an important first step for the Magic. They needed these lessons too.

Perhaps the billboard New Balance put up of Kawhi Leonard outside Oakland is correct. The Raptors are not here without the lesson the Magic made them learn in Game 1. They played a part in their story.

Next. Orlando Magic must feel so close and so far from NBA Finals teams. dark

Just as surely as the Raptors will play a part in the Magic’s story as they look to build toward next year.