Orlando Magic’s playoff experience helped get them back where they started

It was a long journey for the Orlando Magic to return to the playoffs and get a second chance. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
It was a long journey for the Orlando Magic to return to the playoffs and get a second chance. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images) /

This season, the Orlando Magic went through trial after trial just to get back to where they started. The Playoffs will be their proving ground.

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It was a long road to get to the Playoffs the first time.

For many members of the Orlando Magic, it was six years of frustration and disappointment. Of false starts and missed chances. Of failure and defeat.

It felt like the first thing coach Steve Clifford had to do when he arrived in town was make the team believe they could actually break the terrible cycle of loss that envelops teams stuck at the bottom of the league.

When things clicked, they did so suddenly.

The team went on a run and, as if in a dream, the Magic had rallied to make the playoffs. What seemed so far off — especially when the team was at its lowest point at 20-31 in January 2019 — suddenly became real.

Orlando rallied to make the postseason, finishing 42-40, clinching a spot in the penultimate game and then doing the unthinkable and taking a game off the Toronto Raptors.

Doing all of that again — and more — was going to be the trick the next season. Now that Orlando knew what was possible, the team had to build upon it.

The 2020 season took a ton of twists and turns. But it finally ended August 13 on a court at Disney in a way nobody could have expected.

The pandemic may have delayed it, but the Magic secured the second trip to the playoffs. That is an accomplishment that was not lost on anyone within the organization, especially with everything the team had to go through.

Through all the injuries and hardships and delays the team went through this year, they stayed the course and continued to compete. Orlando may not have made the progress everyone hoped the team would make this season, but they did something important too.

They got back to the postseason through every challenge. That means something. That means some form of growth.

The long road back

It was hard to envision the Magic having any kind of success if you would have been told of the injuries they would face back in October.

Missing Nikola Vucevic for 11 games? Losing the big free-agent signing in Al-Farouq Aminu for the season in late November? Aaron Gordon’s seemingly lingering ankle problem that lasted from November to January? Going down Michael Carter-Williams for much of the season? D.J. Augustin for 14 games in January?

And, of course, Jonathan Isaac’s seeming season-ending injury and January and then a torn ACL when the season restarted?

This team was never fully healthy since about mid-November. That kind of adversity to so many key players may have broken the team in years past.

Things only got worse when the team got inside the bubble with Isaac’s torn ACL casting a dark shadow over everything. Injuries again to Gordon and Carter-Williams hit the team’s depth. Evan Fournier seemingly had to sit out just as the team was trying to rally and advance back to the 7-spot.

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But every year can be a grind. And even in the midst of injuries the team did not have to face in 2019, Orlando kept a steady drumbeat to get back to at least close to where they were last year.

It was not easy to get back to the postseason. But that experience from last year helped them get there.

"“I think it was an advantage,” coach Steve Clifford said after the Orlando Magic’s 133-127 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. “And also the fact that last year how we played our way in. When we had struggles which we did obviously at certain parts of the season. They could think back to about a year ago when we finished 22-9. These guys have a good understanding that you have to play the game, handle disappointment, handle success and have the mentality of fixing in and playing better the next game. That’s why we had so much success last year.”"

This group should feel some sense of accomplishment in getting back to the playoffs and proving their 2019 appearance was not a fluke.

The Magic certainly found out it can be tougher to maintain their spot than to chase it.

It is hard to draw too many conclusions from the campus. It is such a self-contained thing. Clifford is right to point out the easy schedule the Magic had coming their way that very well could have changed their season.

The Magic likely would have finished seventh had the season finished as scheduled. Orlando might not have gotten back to 42 wins, but the team would have gotten much closer.

That does not matter as much anymore. The season finished how it finished. And the team has to feel some tinge of disappointment they did not take care of one of their key goals to finish seventh.

But looking back at the whole season, the Magic again defied a lot of doubts about their group. Every time someone seemed to doubt them, they came through to maintain their spot. They remain an undoubted playoff team in the Eastern Conference.

"“Nobody expected us to be here again,” D.J. Augustin said after Thursday’s game. “Same thing as last year. We are proud of ourselves for making it to the playoffs this year. At the end of the day, we have a lot to accomplish it. We’re not satisfied with just making it anymore. That was great last year. This year, we have a different mindset. We want to be more successful in the playoffs.”"

It was hardly perfect and there is still a tinge of disappointment about how things ultimately ended.

Growth in the postseason

Indeed, the Orlando Magic looked sluggish in five losses inside the campus, perhaps some shell shock from the injuries and a team taken completely out of its rhythm and rotation at a time where they needed to be tying together.

That will be hard to forget. Just as it will be hard to forget the team’s poor 5-29 record against teams with winning records this season.

But those records are wiped clean now. All that matters is the first team to 16 wins (minus the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies’ play-in series) gets the trophy. Everyone is 0-0 and despite the tall task ahead for the playoffs, it presents a new opportunity.

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After a disappointing showing after a Game 1 win last year, the Magic know their success is measured in the postseason.

If there is one place the Magic need to prove themselves after copying last year’s success, it is there. And that might ultimately be where this team gets judged.

"“I think we can learn a lot from last year’s series,” Nikola Vucevic said after Thursday’s game. “I think last year after winning Game 1 we were never able to match up with Toronto’s intensity. They made adjustments and we didn’t really respond to it as well. Hopefully, this year when that happens, we will be able to react better and take what we learned last year and grow from it. For us, that was a very good experience to get knocked off by the world champs. We felt like we could have played better. We know now what we need to do.”"

Just being in the playoffs is no longer satisfying to anyone — as much the players themselves, even as they took a moment to reflect on the accomplishment, as it is the fans. Everyone knows there are bigger fish to fry and bigger goals to achieve. They come at this time of the season.

Regardless of any perceived disappointment or lack of progress, the team still has high expectations for itself. Everything has changed in the last two years.

It does not matter who they are facing, the Magic believe. But belief has to become action to make good on it.

"“It definitely taught us what to get to this point,” D.J. Augustin said after Thursday’s win. “Now we have to make that jump and go further. If we don’t get out of the first round, none of us will be satisfied this year. We believe in ourselves and we believe we can beat the Bucks. That should be our mindset.”"

Those will be questions to answer in the offseason. The team itself is concerned with the task at hand. They still have a chance to achieve something more.

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Because the one thing they have undeniably done is proven they learned from their experience last year and kept their spot in line.