Orlando Magic eager for chance to return to Playoffs

Aaron Gordon treasured his first Playoff experience. He is eager to lead the Orlando Magic back there again. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Aaron Gordon treasured his first Playoff experience. He is eager to lead the Orlando Magic back there again. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic are jumping right back into the playoff race. They seem eager to resume the chase and make a second appearance in the postseason.

Ask Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon about his playoff experience in 2019 and the usually composed and smooth forward will get visibly excited. His eyes will widen and the excitement of that moment comes rushing back to him pretty quickly.

He says that experiencing the postseason was the ultimate NBA experience. He will talk about how the Scotiabank Arena fans created a wall of noise in Game 2 and how difficult the challenge was. They will all beam about how much buzz was in Orlando and the atmosphere at the Amway Center for Games 3 and 4.

Gordon and his teammates got a taste of the NBA at the highest level — playing the eventual champions no less.

Other players may not have expressed that same experience, but they likely share the same sentiment. They all understood there was a new standard.

Last year’s run to the postseason was inspiring and the culmination of seven years of frustration turned into something productive. They wanted to get back and everything has changed for this team. The expectations of what they can do changed completely.

Last year, the team was happy to be in the playoffs. This year they wanted to do more. They may have fallen short of that goal, but they are still where they want to be — in position to make the playoffs.

And even the disappointment of just making the playoffs is a sign of growth and progress for this team. Everything about this season has been about making the playoffs.

"“If you ask our guys, they expected to be in the playoffs this year,” Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said during a teleconference this week. “That mindset of expecting to win is important. with that comes a service to your teammates, a responsibility to each other. That’s the corner. You start to feel that responsibility to your teammates because you don’t want to be that guy who become the weak link in the chain. That’s what winning does.”"

Undoubtedly, the whole season had been building up to the point the Magic were reaching when the season went on hiatus. The whole purpose for this season was at minimum to match last year’s playoff appearance. They needed to prove last year was no fluke.

The growing experience

The Orlando Magic largely did that in going 30-35 and sitting comfortably in the 8-seed. They are in a position to make the playoffs a second straight year with the eight remaining seeding round games.

But most people, and perhaps the team itself, would admit this season was a disappointment. The Magic have not answered many questions about their long-term future.

If the playoffs are how players and teams are ultimately judged, then the whole season was building toward this moment. The Magic might have a lot of their conclusions already made on how they need to grow next. But the playoffs can still change some minds and provide new information.

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Coach Steve Clifford said after the conclusion of last year’s series that he was disappointed his team could not make the series more competitive. And for sure, players like Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic want some measure of redemption for last year’s poor performance.

They have been waiting all year for this moment. It just took a little longer to get here.

"“I think it’s going to be a little bit of nervous, but everyone is excited and anxious to get back on the court and compete and continue our run to try to climb the ladder in the Playoff race,” Terrence Ross said in a teleconference last week. “In that regard, most of us are pretty excited.”"

It is easy to forget this is a relatively young team. Only D.J. Augustin and James Ennis are older than 30 years old on the main rotation. Most of these players are inexperienced when it comes to the playoffs — Augustin was really the only player with serious playoff experience since Vucevic and Fournier largely played cleanup minutes in their rookie years.

Every experience and every trip is more information and knowledge to internalize and grow from. Especially for Markelle Fultz and Mohamed Bamba, even going through the playoff process would be important for them.

An incomplete experience

This time will obviously be different. It will not be a full playoff experience.

There will be no raucous crowds and no energy coming from the building. In an empty stadium, teams will have to create their own energy. These young players will have to go through the wringer of a season to get their first full playoff experience.

"“When you dream about playing in the NBA, you dream about the NBA Finals, having packed arenas, fans going crazy, the whole town just waiting for the game to start,” Evan Fournier said in a teleconference last week. “It has a huge impact, obviously. It’s going to be the first time for all of us playing with no fans. It’s basically going to be like a scrimmage playing a real game. The energy is going to be flat, we’re going to have to find the energy within.”"

That is one of the bigger concerns for the team. So too is ramping up safely to playoff intensity.

Players are probably in shape as if it were early September. It will be hard to ask them to do the things they would do in mid-March and early April. Nikola Vucevic said it will take some time to get the team physically prepared.

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Their mindset might be that they are in the midst of a Playoff race, but their bodies will certainly need some time to catch up. This is part of the balance coach Steve Clifford is going to have to strike.

The Magic might have been rallying to make their playoff push as the season went on hiatus. There is no going back to that. The team still has a lot to play for — including trying to win the seventh-seed — and a lot to prepare for.

This may not be the typical run to the playoffs, but it will still require the Magic play with attention to detail and focus to succeed.

On track to return

The Orlando Magic are certainly on track to make the playoffs again — one-half game behind the Brooklyn Nets for the seven-seed and 1.5 games ahead of the Washington Wizards to avoid a play-in series. Going through the preparation and the pressure of needing to win games will still be extremely instructive.

"“I feel like that is an important thing for our young players to see and I think it’s an important thing for our veterans players to go through that they can model that for our young players,” Weltman said in a teleconference Tuesday. “Obviously we come in with expectations of competing at a high level. We’ll see where things go. There are more variables heading into these playoffs than anyone in our league has ever seen before.”"

Once the Magic get to the playoffs, there may not be the atmosphere and energy to match. But it will still be the playoffs. There will still be a best-of-seven series against an elite team and a challenge to confront and rise up to.

The task of winning in these playoffs may be tougher because of the conditions — the mental challenge of being in the campus setting and sequestered from society will especially be a challenge. These playoffs are going to be different than anything any player has experienced.

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But this is what the Magic have played for all year. This was the goal they have sought from the beginning of the season. And they are eager to see it through.