Orlando Magic must still rise up to a Playoff level

The Orlando Magic again fell short against a Playoff-caliber team as they struggled to rise up to a Playoff level. (Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic again fell short against a Playoff-caliber team as they struggled to rise up to a Playoff level. (Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic feasted on the poor teams on their schedule. But they are still seeking a way to rise up to a Playoff level and achieve their goals.

100. Final. 109. 38. 120

The Orlando Magic have big dreams.

They do not accept that they are a likely 7-seed and easy fodder for a potential contending team. The one thing Steve Clifford has done within the organization is to raise expectations for what is possible and, more importantly, what is acceptable.

With the season resuming inside the campus after four months off to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the Magic saw this as a second chance. They saw this as an opportunity to make more of their season than they might have otherwise.

They knew, fighting off the Washington Wizards beneath them and chasing the Brooklyn Nets ahead of them, they would have to be sharp from the start. They knew they would have to carry over their best play from before the league went on hiatus.

There was no time to waste. The Magic had to prove they belonged in the playoff field. Their stated goal was not just merely to make the playoffs but make some noise when they get this.

To show the progress the regular season did not yield, they would have to do more than the gentlemen’s sweep they suffered to the Toronto Raptors in last year’s first round.

They would have to earn that through their play. they would have to show that in the seeding round. To get there, they would have to show they can elevate their play and rise to the occasion.

To be sure, this was not it. This effort against the Indiana Pacers, the first game against a team that automatically clinched a spot in the playoffs upon entering the campus, was not going to get the job done.

Not anywhere close.

This is not going to get the job done. And after two masterful performances against the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings, the Orlando Magic know they can and must be a whole lot better.

The Magic cannot have any more letdowns like this. Not if they want to be the team they believe they can be. Not if they want to accomplish what they think they can accomplish.

"“There are disappointing nights sometimes in the NBA where guys get going or you play hard and the ball doesn’t go in the basket,” Clifford said after the game. “To me, the whole thing is unacceptable. We have a team who I think can be the surprise of this thing. I thought our effort was terrible. We played better as the game went on. Our defense and everything we emphasized in the morning, they crushed us with.“If we’re going to be a factor in this, we have to play smart and hard. And we did neither of those things tonight.”"

A slow start

From the first possession of the game — a turnover on the Orlando Magic’s favorite opening play where Nikola Vucevic uses a high-low set to get Aaron Gordon the ball in the post — the Magic were a step off. They were lax and going through the motions. They provided little resistance and the Indiana Pacers could attack.

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Indiana put up 43 points on a blistering 17-for-24 shooting. The usually selective 3-point shooting Pacers made seven 3-pointers in the quarter. Most of them were open from a defense that was indifferent at worst and stretched too thin “at best.”

The Magic started off poor, moving a step slow offensively and missing seven of their first eight shots. They finished the entire game with an uncharacteristic 18 turnovers. Those mistakes made it harder to climb out with how hot the Pacers started the game.

But it was not that Indiana was hot. Orlando did not provide much resistance. The Pacers were able to make a living in the paint with 52 points in the paint. They moved inside-out. They played their game at a higher level, playing with speed and intensity the Magic lacked.

Orlando was staggered early and never recovered.

Indiana did not have to do much to hold off Orlando. The Magic got as close as 12 points in the third quarter. But no closer. The Pacers always had the drive to the lane, the kick out or the stop to keep the Magic at bay.

Rising to the occasion

More importantly, the Indiana Pacers rose its game. With All-Star Domantas Sabonis out for the season with a foot injury and Victor Oladipo in and out of the lineup recovering from his own leg injury, the team is like the Magic patched together with players who have to work together to win.

And it is there where T.J. Warren has fit in to become the campus’ MVP so far. He scored another 32 points on 13-for-17 shooting, making his first eight shots in the first half. He has stepped up his game and has made the Pacers look like the best team in the Eastern Conference.

We are seeing it throughout the campus.

Players, especially on the teams fighting for playoff positioning and their postseason lives, are picking up their play. Players like Devin Booker or DeMar DeRozan are lifting their games to make up lost ground. They are already in playoff form.

That is the sign of a playoff-ready team. This is where the Magic were in their first two games as a group and where they fell so short against a quality Pacers team.

"“We can’t play this way,” Nikola Vucevic said after Tuesday’s game. “We’re not going to have a chance. We are at our best when we are good on the defensive end. A lot of times the defense fuels our offense. Tonight, our defense was poor and our offense wasn’t good either.”"

The Magic are still searching for a way to raise their game. That was the issue in last year’s playoffs. Nikola Vucevic especially struggled to break the Toronto Raptors’ defense.

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  • Aaron Gordon was really the only starting player who seemed to reach a playoff gear.

    He is still figuring out a way to assert himself. And at least one positive — if you squint really hard — from Tuesday’s game was Gordon’s assertiveness. He scored 20 points on 8-for-15 shooting and always had a willingness to attack the basket. He at least seemed to play with some energy.

    Gordon said after the game he still has another level he has to get to. He said he needs to trust his first instinct more. This is part of a young player trying to find their way.

    But it seemed like an angry and frustrated energy. Gordon began to default to his dribbling and trying to do it alone. Not that anyone else was also playing with a high energy level or pace.

    Clifford described the team’s overall play as “mindless.”

    "“We just weren’t ready,” Gordon said after Tuesday’s game. “They were too comfortable. We came out flat. We got comfortable with the two wins. It was fool’s gold. When you put yourself in a hole like that to a good team, it’s tough to get back.”"

    That is not the mindset or the talk of a playoff team. And certainly not of one that has so much to fight for and battle for in the short-term, and the long term.

    Picking up urgency

    There is no easing into games. As Aaron Gordon said after the game, the team has to be ready for a full 48 minutes.

    They seemed to be in that mindset to defeat the Nets and Kings. But those are, frankly, bottom-feeding teams. The Orlando Magic have feasted on those teams this year.

    The Orlando Magic have struggled with teams like the Indiana Pacers and the Toronto Raptors, who are next on the docket Wednesday. They have just five wins against teams with winning records this season.

    They thought their play had turned a corner. But it is these four games, starting Tuesday, that will show just how ready they are for the postseason.

    And whether they can make noise.

    They know there is precious little time to get ready. And there is still work to do.

    There can be no let up or blinking. And so Tuesday fell well short of the standard the team has set for itself and the goal it needs to reach.

    "“It’s an unacceptable performance,” Clifford said after Tuesday’s game. “I can’t even tell you how disappointing it is. I don’t get that way. It’s going to get back to you have to commit to things in this league, especially this time of year. We had been in the first two games. Tonight was unacceptable.”"

    Next. Grades: Indiana Pacers 120, Orlando Magic 109. dark

    The Magic still have to rise up to the challenge.