Orlando Magic waiting, readying for playoffs to begin

Aaron Gordon is still working his way back from injury and is eager to return for the Orlando Magic's playoff run. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
Aaron Gordon is still working his way back from injury and is eager to return for the Orlando Magic's playoff run. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic have one seeding game left, but their focus is on getting healthy and getting ready for the playoffs next week. It’s all on their mind.

The question to Aaron Gordon after Wednesday’s practice was simple and direct.

Will you be ready to play when the playoffs begin Monday or Tuesday?

Aaron Gordon looked off-camera toward Joel Glass, the Orlando Magic’s head of media relations who joined the team inside the campus, to ask what day it was. Informed it was Wednesday, he did some calculations in his head and said, “Yeah, I’ll be ready.”

It is indeed all the same day inside and outside the bubble.

It was good to see Gordon in a practice jersey talking to the media. And media inside the arena Sunday and Tuesday caught Gordon going through a pregame shooting routine to at least continue some activity as he gets back from what has been officially listed as a left hamstring strain.

"“I’m progressing slowly but surely,” Gordon said after practice Wednesday. “Mentally, physically, spiritually, it’s all getting better. But specifically my hamstring. It’s not a linear improvement. Some days are better than others. I’m slowly getting stronger and starting to feel better. It’s starting to loosen up a bit.”"

But all eyes are on the playoffs. It is not time to push him yet. He has already been ruled out for Thursday’s seeding round finale against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Yes, the Magic have one more seeding round game. And coach Steve Clifford continues to say it is important the team get its work in and make progress toward being ready for the postseason.

Especially coming off a poor effort against the Brooklyn Nets, the Orlando Magic know they have some work to do to get there.

"“Just to prepare us for the playoffs,” James Ennis said after practice Wednesday. “I know it’s our last game against the Pelicans. It’s a game so we are definitely going to go in there and play hard. But also we are going to turn our mindset to who we have to paly in the first round. I feel like we have to continue to move forward and practice our habits from practice to games and start preparing for Milwaukee.”"

But the Magic’s attention is not wholly on Thursday’s opponent. Their attention remains on the task ahead against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Focus changes to Playoffs

Most of their preparation and discussions in practice were about what the Milwaukee Bucks do and how best to attack them. They understand they have to do a good job moving them to get kick-out 3-pointers.

That is difficult to do. While the Bucks give up a ton of 3-point attempts, they do a good job crowding the paint and preventing easy shots around the basket or at the foul line. And with Giannis Antetokounmpo they quickly pounce on any turnovers or mistakes.

Steve Clifford has already begun mapping out what it will take to face the Bucks in the postseason.

"“They do a good job of taking away the strengths of individual players,” Clifford said after practice Wednesday. “They are really locked into personnel. Even though they have a philosophy of not living and dying by the 3-point shot, I would bet most of the elite 3-point shooters they do a good job on.“And the second part is they are so good at everything else. You don’t score at the rim. They don’t foul. Their one-on-one defense is very good. They guard their guy. It’s more old-school defense and it plays nicely into their personnel.”"

It is indeed a tall order. The Bucks rank first in the league in defensive rating, giving up 102.4 points per 100 possessions, and eighth in offensive rating at 112.2 points per 100 possessions. Their 9.7 net rating is the tops in the league.

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This is truly the best team in the league statistically for the whole season.

Clifford said Saturday that the team has opted to go slow with injured players to give them a chance to be fully healthy. They understand fully that they stand little chance against a team like the Bucks if they are not as close to 100-percent as possible.

Injuries and opportunity

Once again, injuries have been the pervasive story for the team since the season resumed.

Aaron Gordon said he has been watching tape to stay ready and doing other activities like meditating to stay in a healthy frame of mind. He is doing all he can to be as sharp as he can for when the games really begin to count.

It is not just Gordon on the sideline doing mental exercises to stay ready. James Ennis said he is also focusing on taking care of himself inside the bubble to keep his mind sharp and focused on the task ahead.

Ennis particularly has had a strong showing in the last three games in Gordon’s absence, averaging 12.0 points per game with a 64.3-percent effective field goal percentage.

Ennis has a player option heading into next season. While he said he has not given much thought to his contract status, he said he has felt very comfortable with Orlando. Now with more games under his belt, it is clearer to see the kind of impact he can have.

"“Since I have been here, it has always been open hands,” Ennis said after practice Wednesday. “I feel like coming over here was one of the biggest and great decisions I have made in my career. I enjoyed being in Philly, but everything happens for a reason. The door is open and this one opened for me. I am glad I can contribute to this team. I’m excited because we have a lot of talent and a lot of power. I feel we can beat anyone on any given night when we are at our best.”"

To get to that best, the roster needs to be healthy.

Like Gordon, none of the other players the Magic have been without for the last three games will play either Thursday. Evan Fournier is listed as out with a non-COVID illness. Michael Carter-Williams continues to sit with strained tendon in his left foot.

And Terrence Ross has re-entered the campus after leaving for additional testing. He is currently in quarantine and Clifford said they expect Ross to be available to rejoin the team Friday or Saturday. Provided Ross continues to test negative for the virus, he would be out of quarantine before the playoffs begin.

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Ross said on his podcast he started feeling something that felt like heartburn or sharp pains in his chest when he returned to his room after a meal Sunday. The pain was bad enough to call the team and NBA physicians and they advised he get tested off-site.

He said he is fine. But he just has to get through quarantine before he can rejoin the team.

Antsy for the postseason

Everyone seems antsy now to get back into the flow of things. The Orlando Magic know they are shorthanded right now and there is at least some anticipation to see everyone back in the lineup and ready for the postseason to begin.

A lot of the season has been building to this point. Even with how much the team has struggled and some of the frustrations involved in this five-game losing streak, there is an eagerness to get to this point.

"“It’s very frustrating just not being able to be out there and play the game that I love with my brothers,” Gordon said after practice Wednesday. “But it’s about the playoffs. That’s what this league is about. I know my team needs me to get right so I can help them in the series that is coming up.”"

The final seeding round game will feel a bit pro forma then. It is something on the schedule they have to do.

Once again, the Magic’s goal will be to get out of the game without injury — the Pelicans will play without Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday. It is unlikely the starters finish the game after they get their work in.

Next. Nikola Vucevic will either make or break the Orlando Magic. dark

They hope they can get more productivity out of this game than the last one. And then the real preparation and focus can begin on the postseason.