Orlando Magic’s whole season has waited for their Playoff return

Nikola Vucevic could not follow up his All-Star season with a strong playoff showing. With the Orlando Magic back he is hoping for a better series. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic could not follow up his All-Star season with a strong playoff showing. With the Orlando Magic back he is hoping for a better series. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic set out making the playoffs as their main goal for the season. Now back int the postseason, they are eager to show their growth.

From the first day the Orlando Magic reconvened to begin preparations for the 2020 season, the focus has been on one thing.

Goal number one: Make the Playoffs.

The team celebrated its first playoff berth in seven years last season. But the trip ultimately left them with a sour taste. Two of their key players struggled mightily and the Magic bowed out of the series after five games.

They will at least always have the Game 1 victory and D.J. Augustin’s winning shot to cherish in Magic history. But the cameo was not enough, the team wanted more.

That playoff appearance changed everything for the Magic. Suddenly everyone knew what was possible with this team and with this group. It became the baseline expectation.

It was a roundabout way to get there. A pandemic delayed the postseason by four months, but the day is finally here. The Orlando Magic will finally step back onto the court in the postseason Tuesday against the Milwaukee Bucks.

"“Very excited. The playoffs are the best part of the NBA,” Nikola Vucevic said after practice Monday. “This is what you play for all season long. We’re glad to be back for the second season in a row. Especially for me after six years of not really having a chance. Hopefully, we can do something special this year.”"

Ultimately, the season did not go how the Magic wanted. They expected to improve on their 42-40 record and 7-seed from last year. None of that happened. The Magic finished at 33-40 (on pace for 37 wins in an 82-game season).

Orlando struggled with injuries throughout the season. It certainly held the team back and kept them from realizing their full potential. But Orlando truly learned that it cannot just roll everything back and make improvements. Internal growth is hardly guaranteed.

Through it all, the Magic put themselves in position to make the playoffs once again. They were looking ahead to the easy part of their schedule and likely a run to secure seventh. Then the pandemic hit and put them on ice for four months.

When they returned, they struggled to recapture that same energy and momentum. And then injuries devastated the roster, much more than is even normal for the wild NBA.

They cannot go back to the past and make up for the missed expectations. But they can move forward with this chance in the playoffs.

"“We had set higher expectations to start the season,” Nikola Vucevic said after practice Monday. “Through the year it was kind of up and down. We weren’t really where we want it to be. We stuck with it. We fought through a lot of adversity and a lot of injuries. We got back to where we want to be. Now it is on us to go out there and deliver.”"

No one is probably looking for redemption more than Vucevic.

He took a wave of criticism after he struggled against the Toronto Raptors last year in the postseason. Vucevic went from averaging 20.8 points per game, grabbing 12.0 rebounds per game and shooting 54.9-percent effective field goal percentage to averaging 11.2 points per game, grabbing 8.0 rebounds per game and shooting 38.8-percent effective field goal percentage.

Vucevic has had questions about his ability to step up in the postseason chase him all year. Once he recovered from an early-season ankle injury, Vucevic started to play like an All-Star again. He has played well since the season resumed, averaging 20.4 points per game, grabbing 9.6 rebounds per game and shooting a 59.3-percent effective field goal percentage.

But notably, Vucevic scored only 12 points and made just four of his 10 shots against those same Raptors inside the NBA campus.

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Like the entire team, Vucevic needs the playoffs to prove himself and answer bigger questions about his place in the league. The Magic are trying to answer those questions too.

"“Obviously I didn’t have the series last year that I wanted to have,” Vucevic said after practice Monday. “It was a learning experience for me. It was my first time being in that position. This year, I’m motivated to do much better. I’m a better player than I was last year. I believe I will be ready and have a good series.”"

No matter how well Vucevic might have played, these questions cannot get answered until the playoffs. So many questions for this team cannot get answered until they are in the crucible of the postseason.

It is truly a different animal where teams have to rise to the occasion and get better as the series goes on. That took the Magic by some surprise last year.

"“The intensity of the playoffs,” Evan Fournier said of his lasting impression and lessons from last year’s playoff appearance. “We had a really good Game 1. But Toronto picked it up from that loss. They got better and better after each game. That was really the biggest lesson. How they adjusted and got to know us more and more each game. By Game 5 it was clear they knew everything about us and how to beat us. We didn’t answer that.”"

That kind of approach and intensity can certainly take an unprepared or inexperienced team by surprise. The Magic were able to surprise the Raptors in Game 1 but never truly found their footing the rest of the series. Game 3 was the only other close game in the series.

Like Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier had his struggles in the postseason too. He averaged only 12.4 points per game and shot only 40.6-percent effective field goal percentage. His 3-point shooting was worse than 30 percent, including a 1-for-8 3-point performance in the Game 3 loss.

Fournier has turned in a career season this year — 18.5 points per game with a 56.0-percent effective field goal percentage. But he too needs a bit of redemption with a strong playoff series.

The Orlando Magic certainly hoped for an easier path than facing the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks. They will have to be on point with everything and every player is going to have to step up. The Bucks will shrink the team’s already small margin for error.

It will be tough with the injuries the Magic are facing. But Orlando still can accomplish its goals from the start of the season and prove the growth they have made from last year.

"“The thing that we talked about form the first meeting was to be a playoff team and to be playing in a manner where we can be a factor. So far we have accomplished that goal,” Steve Clifford said after practice Monday. “These late-season injuries, I can’t lie, not from an attitudinal or effort or approach, we’re just not 100-percent yet. The injuries have hurt us in that regard. I love the guys’ attitude and I think we’ll be ready to play well tomorrow.”"

The whole year though has built up to this point.

Next. Orlando Magic must limit Milwaukee Bucks' fastbreak. dark

This is what the Magic have played for all season. This is the opportunity they have waited for all season.