Orlando Magic need to be more comfortable being uncomfortable

The Orlando Magic were better in the 2020 playoffs, but they still struggled to deal with the pressure other teams present in the postseason. (Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic were better in the 2020 playoffs, but they still struggled to deal with the pressure other teams present in the postseason. (Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic again faced the pressure of the playoffs and came out better this time around. But they need to continue finding comfort in discomfort.

The Orlando Magic knew the wave was coming in Game 2.

The Milwaukee Bucks had played lethargic, hoping to sleepwalk through a first-round series and get themselves right after a lackluster 3-5 run through the seeding round in Game 1. The Bucks were always biding their time. But Orlando’s surprising Game 1 win forced Milwaukee back to attention.

And so the pressure began.

Eric Bledsoe started picking the ball up sooner and getting into his man. The Bucks started to swarm and crowd any drivers in the lane as they enveloped drivers into the paint. Nikola Vucevic, being the only consistent offensive option, saw more double teams in the post and the occasional triple teams.

For the second straight year in the playoffs, the Magic surprised their opponent early only to see the higher-seeded team lock in more and completely stymie what little offensive attack they had.

The Magic put up a better fight this time around. But the result remained the same — a five-game gentlemen’s sweep. And there were still bigger questions about the Magic’soverall makeup the team needs to resolve.

It was most evident in that switch from Game 1 into Games 2 and 3 of this series with the Bucks.

The Magic struggled with the pressure in those games, just as they did in the 2019 series against the Raptors. Playoff basketball is no longer some theoretical thing with lessons to learn. It is a state of mind the team needs to be better at executing.

Orlando has to be able to play and be comfortable in being uncomfortable.

That is a shorthand way of describing a ton of problems fans have already discussed — the lack of a go-to scorer, the waxing and waning of physicality, and the touch of playmaking and unpredictability necessary to win these playoff battles.

The playoffs reveal

The Playoffs always reveal a team’s deficiencies. It exposes their weaknesses and brings them heartbreakingly to the light of day. And the Orlando Magic’s biggest weakness still remains.

The Magic have done great in Game 1s because of Steve Clifford’s meticulous planning. They are able to execute a gameplan nearly flawlessly when given the time to practice.

But in the heat of the series, they have been unable to adjust and play with the same force. When teams ratchet up, the Magic have lagged behind.

The Toronto Raptors in 2019 and the Milwaukee Bucks in 2020 both adjusted by ramping up the pressure and turning the screws. The Magic in both years did not adjust to this newfound pressure with flying colors.

The stats show that as much as the eye test shows it. The Magic were never super comfortable being uncomfortable. They were always reacting to what their opponents were doing rather than forcing their style of play.

For comparison’s sake, the Magic posted a 95.8 offensive rating and 111.5 defensive rating in last year’s playoffs against the Raptors compared to a 101.9 offensive rating and 11.5 defensive rating in this year’s playoffs against the Bucks.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

That shows the kind of improvement that Clifford talked about after the series ended. The Magic competed and played better. But not nearly well enough.

If these numbers do not tell you where the Magic’s biggest weaknesses are — injuries or not in this year’s postseason — watching the game surely will.

Learning lessons

Orlando Magic players understood the playoff challenge better in 2020. They repeatedly said what they learned was how teams get better as series move on. How they become more dialed in with the gameplan and what needs to be done.

Ultimately, they find stars and other players who help them push through the walls and step up to perform. Even with everything loaded up against them.

What separates the great teams and the teams that are successful in the playoffs from teams that struggle in the postseason is this ability to play when teams make them comfortable. The playoffs are as much a force of will as anything else.

Jamal Murray spent his entire postseason making crazy shots going on incredible scoring binges to will his team back from two 3-1 deficits. In the Western Conference Finals, LeBron James simply took over Game 5. Bam Adebayo knew he had a poor Game 5, allowing the Boston Celtics to extend the Eastern Conference Finals, and followed that up with 32 points and 15 rebounds in the Heat’s close-out Game 6.

It was not merely the raw production but the effect that had on the entire team. Even when the defense knew exactly what was coming.

This is still the greatest lesson of the playoffs.

The Magic have made the playoffs twice now. Clifford has never shied away from talking about playoff basketball and what it takes to succeed in the playoffs. He often uses time in practice to try to tell his team what the playoffs would be like.

Everything Clifford tries to teach and the foundation he is trying to build are geared toward preparing the team for the playoffs. But even that preparation is different.

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But this is also part of the team’s shortcomings. With the roster the Magic have, they rely on each other to create opportunities. That is a good trait to have. But it is not everything. Not in the playoffs.

The talk after Game 1 was all about the pressure the Bucks put the Magic under. They ratcheted up their defensive intensity. Eric Bledsoe got into Markelle Fultz a lot more and made it more difficult for him to get into the team’s offense.

The Magic knew this punch was coming and still struggled to respond to it consistently. Orlando’s struggles to start the fourth quarter of Game 4 especially seemed especially poignant. As the team’s season was slipping away in that eight-minute stretch, the Magic had no one to slow things down.

Throughout that entire series, it felt like the Magic were reacting to the Bucks more than pressing their style and their identity on the series. They were never in control, even as they went on to win Game 1.

Building discomfort

The Orlando Magic are undoubtedly considering changes to their core. They are undoubtedly looking for a way to move forward. And certainly, there are skill needs the team needs to fill and find to make the team better.

But one thing they have to do too is to find players who will be comfortable playing uncomfortable. They have to find players who will be able to push through the discomfort of pressure — both situational pressure and physical defensive pressure. Either find those players or develop that aspect in their team.

Nikola Vucevic took a year of criticism for struggling with the physicality the Toronto Raptors presented him. He seemed to push through it in his second playoff trip. Terrence Ross too seemed to figure out the defensive schemes he saw in the playoffs after struggling in 2019 too.

But Evan Fournier struggled to get himself going throughout the postseason — his illness had some to do with it, but he still underperformed — and Markelle Fultz looked like a rookie at times trying to manage the team in his first real postseason experience.

The regular season is about consistency. And Clifford has built a system with this team that values consistency and getting through that stage of play.

Next. Evaluations: Nikola Vucevic's game continues to evolve. dark

The Playoffs are about being uncomfortable and pushing through that discomfort. That will be the challenge for the Magic in their development both externally and internally.