The Orlando Magic faced off again with the Toronto Raptors and saw what a matchup with them might look like. It was a reminder of the team’s shortcomings.
The defending champions, a hard-scrabble, swarming defensive team, put the Magic on their back foot from the tip. They attacked and swarmed defensively and made everything difficult. Even the open shots seemingly had to be hurried lest a Raptors player come flying in to contest it.
There was no resting and nothing easy. That is what championship teams do. That is what playoff teams do.
When it was all said and done, the Magic again missed some open shots early and again found themselves in a deep hole — although their defensive effort this time at least gave some reason for a sliver of hope.
If this was a playoff preview and a glimpse into the kind of battle the Magic can expect when the games really count in April, then it was not a good showing for them. Not if they have any hopes of actually making noise in the postseason, even if a series win is ultimately a pipe dream.
Orlando scored only 11 points in the first quarter, making 5 of 20 shots. The Magic missed all nine of their 3-pointers. They were down 15 after one quarter and it again proved too deep a hole to get out of.
The Magic were chasing and while there was enough fight to settle in and adjustments to give them a chance, it ultimately came up short in a 109-99 defeat. A defeat that was still full of frustration.
The Raptors kept the pressure on. The Magic looked rattled. And they needed to find their footing to give themselves a chance.
It was just like Tuesday’s loss to the Indiana Pacers. A game where the Magic’s defense looked disinterested, the offense could not keep up and eventually, the playoff-bound team ready to make noise in the postseason coasted to a victory without much challenge.
The Magic are still seeking proof they belong among the playoff teams. They are still seeking proof they can compete and win playoff games.
“They play hard. They are very physical,” Evan Fournier said after Wednesday’s game before taking a deep breath and a slight sigh. “They are just a really good team. They play really well together. Everything that we have to get offensively is very hard. It’s definitely a challenge playing against them. I do hope we play against them in the playoffs.”
Difficult to crack
Everything was indeed difficult. It felt like the Orlando Magic’s offense was running through mud in the first half especially as they tried to break down the Raptors’ swarming defense.
The Toronto Raptors’ defensive strategy is to contain and corral ball handlers but then surround them and trap them in the paint, forcing them into difficult decisions. Heistation against this defense is death as they quickly pounce and pressure.
Toronto’s defensive rotations are tight and together, everyone sliding into the right spot to recover as the ball floats to the next man or chase after steals to start their devastating fast break.
This is the puzzle the Magic have to figure out. It is one that every team has to figure out when it gets to the postseason. Breaking down a defense that is tied together.
And perhaps that is where the Magic are disappointing so much.
They know their margin for error is small. They do not have a ton of offensive weapons. And so things instantly become tougher when Evan Fournier shoots 4 for 11 and 1 for 5 from deep and Terrence Ross shoots 3 for 11 from deep, it becomes difficult to generate enough push to win.
It gets even tougher when the team plays tentatively. And that was really the biggest problem the last two nights. The Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors seemed to get into the Orlando Magic and make them uncomfortable. They were not able to get into their sets cleanly and it showed.
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Orlando can afford perhaps for one or two of their key players to have off nights — and surely Nikola Vucevic has had his struggles with Marc Gasol in previous matchups, going 4 for 10 in Wednesday’s loss — but not all of them.
Someone indeed has to step up and make plays to break the rut and get the Raptors to move so they cannot hone in on ball ahndlers or isolate the ball on one side of the floor.
That is where the Magic really struggled. To beat the Raptors, it cannot be one player forcing their way in. The Magic need drivers to attack quickly looking to score, but also kick out. They still need faith those shots will go down.
Fournier said the team is still searching for its offensive rhythm. A statement that feels hard to believe after the team posted two strong shooting performances in wins over the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings. But one that looks more real as the team struggled against two of the better defenses in the league.
Perhaps there is some fatigue. Fournier said his legs are not as good as he hoped for and that has led to some of his shooting struggles. Everyone is still at a different place in their returns. And Fournier struggled through the scrimmages.
Orlando is still seeking to measure up. The team is still seeking consistency to win these kinds of games.
A comeback short
Still, if the Orlando Magic want to find some positives in a defeat, they never gave up on the fight. Their defense was still fairly solid — the Toronto Raptors shot only 48.7 percent with a 104.8 offensive rating. The Magic’s energy and intensity were better than in Tuesday’s loss.
Coach Steve Clifford did not seem too upset after the loss, surprisingly chipper after two frustrating defeats. He seemed pleased with his teams fight, willing to blame the loss on the team’s poor shooting this time around.
“I actually thought we got decent shots in the first half too. They are terrific defensively. The thing you will get against them is you are going to get spot-up threes. We didn’t shoot the ball as well as we normally would. As the game went on, our quality of shot was much more balanced because we got the ball to the rim too. We did some good things. We got off to a poor start and as the game went on we played better and better.”
Clifford said he used too many of his timeouts early in the game and did not have any to give his team a rest as they tried to come back. Orlando cut as much as a 23-point deficit down to seven early in the fourth quarter.
The Orlando Magic were down but never dispirited like it seemed against the Indiana Pacers.
But ultimately it was the same result. And there are no moral victories in a playoff battle. The team only measures success by wins. And if they want to defeat the Raptors and give them a tough series, they have to play with more intensity and focus.
Clifford has always coached his team with an eye on the postseason. He tries to prepare his team each day as if they are preparing to go into the playoffs. Especially with so many players who have not been through the playoffs often, he tried to give them a hint of what playoff preparation was like.
Both the Raptors and Pacers are two of the best defensive teams in the league. They seem to be dialing in as the playoffs approach and they swarmed and made it hard for the Magic to dictate tempo or get into their sets.
The Magic had to make a major adjustment quickly to their offense to stabilize themselves. They left a lot on the table. Their defense needed time to settle in too. Both the Pacers and Raptors were able to generate offense fairly easily.
The playoffs are never easy. They are meant to be a huge challenge and the most difficult part of the game.
Rising to that challenge is still a big part of the question facing this Magic team. So far, they have struggled to meet it.
They have adjusted and found some solace that for a half or three quarters they can play there. But they know they need more.
If this is what a potential playoff series will look like against the Raptors, perhaps the Magic figure da few things out in this matchup.
But they also saw how difficult things will ultimately will be. They saw how tight they have to play, how fast they have to play and how precise they have to play.
They saw just how small their margin for error and how little lapse in attention they can have.
Most importantly, they saw they are still searching for that full playoff-level effort. Something that has not come yet and continues to mire the team in these critical matchups.